"Dozens of people come every day to buy tranquilliser pills, but we know now which ones are addicted and we refuse to sell to them," he said, adding that many of the addicts are criminals and thieves.

The pharmacy is located next to the Battawin neighbourhood, notorious for its drug and alcohol problem.

"One of them threatened me with a gun and stole my car," said a neighbour of the pharmacist.

But Iraq's rising drug problem is not limited to select neighbourhoods, as young people are increasingly seeking solace in prescription drugs to escape a world of violence, unemployment and despair.

"It is a dangerous plague that has to be confronted immediately, before it becomes uncontrollable," said Dr Adnan Fawzi, assistant to the director of the Ministry of Health's national programme to combat drug addiction.

Finding an escape

Heroin and cocaine use, according to Fawzi, is actually fairly rare, due to the high prices of these drugs.

"The unbearable conditions of daily life, whether in society or in my family, pushed me to find an escape"

Ali, 18, an addict

Instead, people are using pills that are "available for nothing in pharmacies", he said.

Dr Ali Rashid of the Ibn Rushd hospital, who specialises in psychiatry and drug addiction, explains that these pills, like illegal drugs, marginalise their users in a conservative society.

For Ali, 18, his pills allow him to forget his problems. "I float along in another world," he said.

"The unbearable conditions of daily life, whether in society or in my family, pushed me to find an escape," he added.

Social responsibility

Families and educational institutions have a major portion of the responsibility to prevent this problem, maintains social worker Nagham Wannass.

In one area, over1000 homeless,
mostly children, are affected

In the troubled neighbourhood of Battawin, this problem affects "more than 1000 homeless, most of them children" said an official in the Ministry of Interior, who declined to be identified.

In addition to drugs, they often abuse alcohol and sniff glue, he added.

The Health Ministry, whose hospitals are already swamped with victims of the daily violence, is trying to grapple with this problem and has sent large numbers of doctors and specialists abroad to receive training.

Border concerns

In November, the ministry organised a conference entitled: For An Iraq Free Of Drugs, and participants called on the authorities to tighten control of the borders, particularly with Iran, to halt the flow of drugs.

A conference of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in Vienna back in May noted how smugglers were taking advantage of the internal chaos in Iraq to route Afghani-produced heroin through Iraq and into Europe.

Right now, however, the drugs are getting into people's hands through the legal means of pharmacies.

The national anti-drug commission, headed by the Minister of Health Abd al-Mutalib Muhammad Ali, has called for new rules regulating the sale of prescription drugs.

The commission, which includes representatives of the education, labour and interior ministries, has also launched an awareness campaign.

All over Baghdad, walls are plastered with anti-drug posters, showing a man in rags slumped against a wall, while lying at his feet another shoots up with a syringe.