By Ahmed Aboulenein

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – The southern Iraqi city of Basra is struggling to cope with a growing drug problem that has overcrowded prisons and strained police resources, only months after violent protests over poor municipal services.

Basra’s prison system is clogged up and creaking. On a recent day in one police station, Reuters reporters saw about 150 men, their heads shaved, squatting in two small, cramped holding cells.

Arrests of drug users and dealers have shot up in the past year, further stretching prison services and police in a sign that the problems with municipal resources that prompted protests in Basra last summer have not gone away.

“Drugs spread because the youth are lost, they have no money, they are sick of life. It’s escapism,” Major Shaker Aziz, a senior member of Basra police narcotics unit, told Reuters.

“Prison authorities tell us: ‘Ninety percent of inmates are convicted on drug charges, stop sending them.’ So we keep them here,” Aziz said of the holding cells.

The situation in prisons, worsened by a lack of treatment centers for recovering addicts, highlights the contrast between the wealth Basra province produces – its oil contributes over 90 percent of state revenues – and its poor living conditions.

Once known as the Venice of the East, Basra city, which has a population of 4 million, lacks clean water and does not have enough electricity to power air conditioners in the scorching summer heat. Unemployment is widespread, especially among youth.

Thousands protested against the conditions, unemployment and corruption last summer, when searing heat made matters worse and hundreds were treated in hospital after drinking unclean water. Protesters set ablaze government buildings and political groups’ headquarters, and clashed with police.

Officials fear a repeat of the violence this year, and while the drug problem is a concern in several areas of Iraq, Basra suffers from it the most.

STEADY RISE

Basra is struggling even though Iraq declared victory in the four-year war against Islamic State in 2017, and the city never fell to the militant Sunni Islamist group.

The number of drug arrests has risen year-on-year since 2015, Aziz said. By March, police had picked up 15 kilograms (33 lb) of illegal drugs this year, half of 2018’s entire haul. Some 50 to 60 people are arrested each week on drugs-related offences, compared to more than 1,000 all last year, he said.

Methamphetamine, known popularly as crystal meth, is the most widespread drug, said a police spokesman, Colonel Bassem Ghanem. Opium, cannabis and pill abuse are also common.

Basra’s police department says 97 percent of drug users arrested in 2018 were unemployed, and more than two thirds were 25 or younger.

All the drugs come from abroad, said Colonel Ismail al-Maliki, who heads the Basra police narcotics unit.

Basra Police Chief Rashid Fleih said in November that 80 percent of drugs entering the city come from Iran. Tehran denied this but officials still point the finger indirectly at Iran, using euphemisms such as “neighboring countries”.

Preventing drug trafficking is a serious challenge for Iran which borders Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium producer, and Pakistan, a major transit country for drugs.

Iraq once had the death penalty for users and dealers but passed new legislation in 2017 under which judges can order rehabilitation for users or sentence them to jail for up to three years. In the absence of rehab centers, they are jailed. Under the new law, the health ministry was given two years to provide rehab centers.

Local health officials pledged to reopen and upgrade a 44-bed rehabilitation center this month but the police say 44 beds is not enough.

“All of Basra’s oil and we can’t afford rehab?” said Aziz.

Asked about the situation, the state-owned Basra Oil Company said it has pledged $5 million for a rehab center.

‘SMOKING FOR FREE’

Inside a training complex on the edge of Basra province, police have re-purposed a building as a makeshift rehab center for users nearing release.

About 40 men live in comparatively comfortable conditions, sleeping six per room with access to television, a gym and books. Clerics, officers and teachers lecture on the sinfulness and dangers of drug use.

Experts say recovering users need treatment and rehabilitation when they first stop using, not towards the end of sentences. Prisoners say they suffer the worst withdrawal symptoms during the first 20 days, unable to eat or sleep.

“This is just a model, to get the health ministry to build real centers,” said Ghanem, the spokesman.

Prisoners interviewed by Reuters were chosen by police, who sat in on interviews. Some were handcuffed.

One user-turned-dealer said he was recruited a year after he started buying, wooed by the idea of free crystal meth.

“I paid 50,000 dinars ($40) per gram as a user. I only paid 20,000 ($16) as a dealer. I would sell some and smoke some. I was smoking for free,” he said.

He described a network of dealers that went up to a “big boss” whom he would not identify to police out of fear for his life. He faces a minimum of five years in jail.

Some said they were falsely arrested. Asked if the police offered suspects lighter sentences if the provided them with information, one police officer said they rarely needed to.

“They always cooperate,” he said, asking not to be named as he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

(Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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