Part I – The Ambush
The sedan pulled into a side street in Mansour, an upmarket area of western Baghdad. The rush-hour traffic on the main thoroughfare had thinned into a trickle, allowing the neighbourhood to settle into the mellow, late-morning rhythm of middle-class life.
Rolling past the high concrete walls and manicured hedges, the car paused upon reaching a red Kia, parked by a small shop that had been agreed as the meeting point. Two girls, whom we’ll call Noor and Shahad, emerged from the backseat. They wore black abayas, full-length garments usually associated with more conservative communities. Their long, black hair was straightened and partly pinned up, the tips distinctly dyed in red and white. They glanced around nervously as a potbellied, middle-aged man, Husham (not his real name), shepherded them towards the Kia.
Noor and Shahad were about to be sold for $5,000 each.
In the distance, Wissam al-Zubaidi from Iraq’s anti-trafficking unit watched the scene from his black Toyota Landcruiser. A moustachioed general in his mid-40s, Wissam wore civilian clothing and Ray Ban aviators, his pistol wedged between his seat and the centre armrest. The driver of the red sedan was one of his men, posing as a pimp who wanted to buy prostitutes to work in northern Iraq. Nearby, a handful more undercover officers stood ready to intervene.
There was an air of confident routine; Wissam’s unit had staged dozens of sting operations like this before, apprehending lowly pimps as they traded women in broad daylight, in the middle of one of the capital’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Since his appointment two years ago, Wissam had become one of the most active officers in the Ministry of Interior’s anti-trafficking department. He could claim credit for many of the sex trafficking cases the ministry had investigated last year. But the official figure – a mere 115 cases in 2021 in a country of 40 million – was likely just the tip of the iceberg.
For more than a year, Al Jazeera investigated the sex trade in Iraq, a growing phenomenon fuelled by deeply entrenched socioeconomic factors and enabled by a tangled web of corrupt officials and armed groups, a toxic mix that has become the hallmark of the United States’s post-2003 legacy in Iraq. The practice appeared to stand in stark contrast to the tenets of Iraq’s patriarchal society, where honour and reputation are paramount and closely tied to a woman’s chastity.
But beneath this veneer of conservative social norms, young girls from poor backgrounds are routinely sold into prostitution, Al Jazeera has found through interviews with more than three dozen individuals, including survivors, women’s rights activists, security officials, pimps and judges.
The victims tend to be girls and women from underprivileged backgrounds who are fleeing domestic abuse or child marriage, with traffickers often exploiting society’s preoccupation with honour to shame vulnerable women into the sex trade. Iraq’s justice system is infused with the same patriarchal norms and often convicts trafficking survivors for prostitution. There is far less accountability for those who benefit from the trade.
The pimps and madams that Wissam’s team targeted were often small cogs in well-oiled machinery that supplied trafficked girls to brothels, hotels and nightclubs across Iraq, lucrative establishments that could operate only with the backing of people with guns and power. Government contacts were needed to issue fake IDs, facilitate passage through checkpoints and get tipped off before the occasional police raid, while militias provided protection in return for a cut of the proceeds. Wissam, who came from a lineage of military officers and held a firm belief in institutions, insisted that nobody was immune from prosecution. “The law is above everyone,” read a slogan scribbled in red paint on the outer walls of his office, housed in a single-storey, dilapidated police station in the Hai al-Jamiya neighbourhood. In truth, the unit lacked the resources and political muscle to turn the tide against the soaring sex trade.
Wissam’s team consisted of only eight officers and a few dozen support staff to cover the entire western half of the capital, an area home to millions of people. Victims rarely reported to the police because of fear of retribution and the shame associated with prostitution. To apprehend traffickers, Wissam’s men had to acquire sources inside the trade, usually by pretending to be clients on social media. The undercover officer who was sitting in the red sedan had spent weeks building a relationship with Husham. In repeated phone conversations, he joked, haggled and requested pictures of women, winning Husham’s trust while creating an electronic record of the negotiations. “There’s a lot of effort. The officers stay up during the night and sleep during the day,” Wissam told me. He pulled out his phone and played a recorded phone conversation between his undercover officer and Husham:
“Please send me her pictures. But not over Snapchat, please,” the undercover officer said, referring to 17-year-old Shahad.
“OK,” Husham replied.
“But not over Snapchat,” the officer insisted again, referring to the messaging app that automatically deletes images. He needed the photos to build up the case and obtain an arrest warrant.
“Where is his location?” Husham asked, referring to a made-up hotel owner the officer pretended to represent.
“He’s based in Erbil and Mansour. He will probably stay in Erbil for five days and come back here.”
“If he takes her to Erbil, I need to go with her, because she is still young. They will not let her through the checkpoints,” Husham said.
“He will get her in through his relations. He has a hotel there,” the officer reassured him.
Minutes after Husham, Noor and Shahad had gotten into the sedan, the headlights began flashing. It was the signal to intervene. Handguns drawn, Wissam’s men ran towards the car and opened the passenger door. “Get out,” they ordered Husham, grabbing him by the neck and both hands, including the one which held the incriminating bundle of hundred-dollar bills. “This isn’t my money,” Husham protested as the officers handcuffed him and drove him away for interrogation.
Noor broke down in tears, convinced they must have been caught up in a turf war between competing trafficking networks. Shahad didn’t cry, but her eyes were wide open with panic as the policemen led them to Wissam’s car. The survivors were taken to the anti-trafficking unit for questioning. A few days later, they were admitted to a government-run safe house, where they shared their stories.