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KERBALA, 11 October (IRIN) - Khalid Hussein, a 22-year-old university drop-out, is a heroin addict, just like his Dad. And with his father's blessing he sells the drug on the streets of Kerbala to support his family.
It is early morning. Khalid's father snorts a small quantity of heroin himself and wishes his son good luck as he sets out into the streets of this city, 160 km south of Baghdad, to find new customers.
"In the beginning I found the idea strange, but today I feel comfortable doing it because at the same time as I'm earning my own money, I'm also using the drug and it helps me forget the terror that has descended on our lives since the foreigners took over our country," Hussein said.
He and his father are among the rising number of Iraqi addicts who also work as dealers to make money and finance their expensive habit.
When they can't sell enough heroin to finance their next fix, many resort to stealing from shops instead.
The Ministry of Health has warned that drug abuse is rising steadily among men and women of all ages in Iraq, especially in the capital Baghdad and in the south of the country.
Officials at the Ministry of Interior blame an increasing influx of hard drugs smuggled in from abroad for the rise in consumption. They also say the escalating rebellion by Islamic insurgents has led the government to focus on security issues instead.
Many consumers of heroin and cocaine say they have been traumatised by the increasing cycle of political violence in Iraq as Islamic insurgents step up their fight against the US-led coalition which invaded the country in 2003 to depose former president Saddam Hussein.
And drug pushers told IRIN they had found a lucrative market amongst soldiers in the US-led occupation forces. They report strong demand from Italian troops in particular.
Many of the foreign troops ask their counterparts in the Iraqi security forces to buy on the street for them, they added.
Business is booming as heroin from Afghanistan filters easily through the porous frontier with neighbouring Iran and cocaine trickles in from Turkey.
The street price of a gramme of heroin has jumped from US $15 before the US-led invasion two years ago to between $20 and $25 today. And there is no shortage of Iraqi consumers.
Massive increase in drug consumption
"There has a huge increase in the consumption of drugs since last year," said Kamel Ali, director of the Ministry of Health's drug control programme.
"The numbers have doubled. In most cases the users are youths who have become addicted and are now working as drug dealers under pressure from the traffickers in order to keep themselves supplied," he said.
According to Ali, the number of registered addicts in suburban Baghdad has more than doubled over the past year, rising to over 7,000 from 3,000 in 2004.
In Kerbala, meanwhile, the number of registered addicts has tripled, he said. The city now has 1,200 known drug users, up from 400 a year ago.
The problem gets worse, he said, the closer you get to the Iranian border.
The Ministry of the Interior said police had captured 45 cars carrying packages of smuggled heroin over the past 15 months. Their drivers face life imprisonment or even the death penalty, if convicted.
But stiff penalties for drug dealing are no longer an effective deterrent.
Under Saddam Hussein's government, people caught in possession of hard drugs were routinely executed and few people dared try such banned substances.
But today it is quite common to see young men snorting heroin in deserted areas of waste ground in Baghdad or even in the streets.
They show little fear of the government security forces, which now have appear to have many drug addicts in their own ranks.
"They cannot do anything to us," Abu Ali, one drug dealer in Baghdad told IRIN.
"Sometimes you even find members of the Iraqi army or the police looking for us to buy some of this great white powder which makes you fly to another planet," he added.
Ali, who is himself a heroin addict, says drug pushers have to sign up a new customer everyday to be able to keep their own habit going.
Only one sniffer dog
Saad Mehdi, a member of the recently created anti-drug team at the Ministry of the Interior, blamed weak security and porous borders for the recent increase in drug trafficking.
He complained there was only one sniffer dog trained to detect drugs in the whole of Iraq, which was based at Baghdad airport.
"These dogs are essential to guarantee that these kinds of drugs do not enter our country, but there are no dogs and no searches for these substances at the Iranian border, which is the main transit point for drugs coming in from Afghanistan," Mehdi said.
But he also admitted that the government had taken its eye off the ball off the drugs issue, because it had been distracted by the armed uprising.
"Unfortunately the intensification of the insurgency in Iraq and insecurity throughout the country has caused the government to neglect this important issue," Mehdi said.
"In the present circumstances we have to choose our priorities and the insurgency is killing more people than the drugs are," said Saruwad Haeezid, another Interior Ministry official.
A family's suffering
Only limited help is available for those addicts who want to kick the habit.
Hiba Hassan is still trying to seek medical help for her 24-year-old son, who recently became a heroin junkie.
"There are very few professionals left in Iraq who have the ability to support our sons," she said. "God bless all mothers in Iraq and punish those responsible, starting with the Iraq government."
Between her tears, Hassan told how her son's best friend was a dealer and that by the time she and her husband discovered this, her son was already hooked.
"We never let our son want for anything, even during these difficult times and we have always given him love," she said. "Insecurity in the country and bad government have allowed drugs to enter Iraq and now we are the ones who have to pay for it."
The Democracy and Peace Humanitarian Organisation is one of the only four NGOs in Baghdad working with drug addicts who want kick their habit.
And it persists, despite receiving threats receiving threats from the drug traffickers who accuse the organisation of undermining their business.
"We have developed a volunteer group in which psychologists and doctors help these youths, and sometimes even adults, overcome their dependence, but difficulties in getting funding have seriously delayed our work," said Marwan Ibn Youssef, the president of the organisation.
He said the NGO had received more than four threatening letters and that traffickers had accused it of taking their drug peddlers off the streets.
Some 34 young people are currently being treated by the organisation. Eight so far have fully rehabilitated and now have jobs outside the capital.
The Iraq Red Crescent Society said it was still waiting for funding from international organisations to develop an anti-drugs programme that would involve psychologists and psychiatrists.
It hopes to start one later this year.
"Our main problem is that we have stopped launching any new projects for the time being and have switched all our resources over to helping displaced people who increase in number every week in Iraq, but we expect funding soon and then we can begin this new project," said Red Crescent spokeswoman Ferdous al-Abadi.
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