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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 October, 2003, 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK
Drug crisis grips Baghdad
Iraqi police
Iraqi police want tougher sentences for drug dealers
A drugs epidemic and accompanying crime wave is sweeping Baghdad.

A boom in supply of hallucinogenic tablets has been coupled with the release of tens of thousands of criminals from prison before the US-led invasion to create a huge problem for the fledgling Iraqi police force.

As well as the tablets, drugs like Valium and sleeping pills - in common use in Iraqi jails - are being used. The euphoria and lack of fear provided by the drugs, the police say, is giving desperate criminals the courage to carry out more crimes.

"The release of those prisoners was a crime - a crime against me, against all Iraqis," Omar Zahed, the leader of the Iraq police's anti-drugs squad, told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"There has been a big increase in crime, and the released prisoners have started involving other people as well.

"Most of our criminals take these tablets before they act. It stops them feeling any scruples or fear.

"When the effects wear off, they forget what they did. It has caused a huge increase in crime."

Tough penalty call

Mr Zahed said that the tablets were of huge concern to the police force - and that their presence in Iraq was the result of a well-planned international criminal effort.

Iraqi prisoners
The release of most of Iraq's criminals before the war has made the situation worse
"They only appeared in this country about two years ago," he stated.

"We did a study and discovered it was a sabotage operation from outside Iraq. It had to be - because at first the tablets were coming in at a totally uneconomical price, just a few US cents per strip.

"Most of the tablets came in over our Eastern boarder with Iran. Our people used them and they have become part of a very profitable trade.

"There is an enormous mark-up on the price."

Mr Zahed said there were around 10-15 types of tablets. He added that some marijuana also came in, but it was not commonly used as it was very expensive.

He stressed that the police needed to be able to enforce tougher penalties in order to deal with the problem.

"At the moment the penalty for trading these tablets is a fine, or at the most a three-month prison sentence," he said.

"Before the war we were drafting a new law with much tougher penalties. I just hope that legislation is put in place."

Mr Zahed's claims of the effects of the drugs were backed up by Mohammed, a tablet user and former prisoner.

"One type of tablet is called Lebanon - when I take it I see Lebanon. I've never been there, but it's in the tablet," he told Outlook.

"I used to see bad things as well. I used to have terrible nightmares and be filled with fear.

"I dream of sex. When you take a tablet it makes you desperate. I attack women.

"You get a friend or a neighbour, or you get a weapon and kill someone, but you are not aware of your actions."

Collapsed system

Among the users, some of the street addicts are very young.

Teenagers and younger children sniffing paint thinner or correction fluid is a common sight.

"The other day I saw a five-year-old child on the street carrying a bag of correction fluid - it was awful," one Baghdad cafe owner said.

"But he was just copying the older children."

The cafe owner said that the explosion in drug use was due to the anarchy that had hit some parts of the capital after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"You didn't see gangs of children on the streets before the war," he said.

"Some of them come from homes and orphanages, because the whole system has collapsed."

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