BAGHDAD -- For seven years, Mohammed has been taking nearly a dozen Captagon pills a day. Now, as Iraq grapples with a major drug crisis, the 23-year-old hopes for a fresh start.
Iraq, which borders Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, has long been a transit country for the region's ballooning trade in the amphetamine-type drug and other narcotics.
But in recent years, Iraq itself has witnessed a dramatic spike in drug abuse, prompting authorities to search for answers, both by cracking down on traffickers and by providing help to addicts.
Methamphetamine, or crystal meth, originating in Afghanistan or Iran, is among the most common drugs in Iraq today, alongside Captagon.
Captagon is produced on an industrial scale in Syria, with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad deeply embroiled in the illicit trade. This issue has given pause to some Arab League members as they consider restoring full ties with Syria.
The illicit drug is trafficked from southern Syria -- where Lebanese Hizbullah has established a number of factories to produce the drug -- to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, via Iraq.
At a drug rehabilitation clinic in Baghdad the Iraqi health ministry opened in April, Mohammed, who asked to use a pseudonym, is one of about 40 patients undergoing treatment.
The young man, who hails from Anbar province on the border with Syria, said he had been introduced to Captagon, also known as "zero-one", by his work colleagues at a food store.
"It makes you active, gives you energy and keeps you awake," he said of the drug.
Since age 16, Mohammed would take "10 to 12" Captagon pills a day, he confessed. Selling for the equivalent of $2 apiece, the stimulant "is everywhere".
Like the other patients at Al-Canal Centre for Social Rehabilitation, he came to the clinic on his own initiative.
After an initial two-week stay, he returned home, but then quickly headed back to the clinic, fearing a relapse.
Captagon, Mohammed said, "leads you either to prison or to death".
Addiction from first dose
Around him, in the laid-back atmosphere of the rehab centre gym, men of nearly all ages were playing table tennis and foosball, some of them smiling. Others were visibly tired or had blank expressions on their faces.
Patients usually stay for around one month at the facility, which also includes a women's wing and offers psychological support. Once discharged, they return for weekly check-ups for a period of six months.
"We host all ages. It starts at 14 to 15, but most are in their 20s," said the clinic's director, Abdel Karim Sadeq Karim.
The most common substance abuse the facility treats is crystal meth -- a highly addictive chemical compound with a white crystalline form that affects the central nervous system.
It is the most widespread illegal drug in Iraq -- most commonly used in central and southern Iraq -- with militias linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) playing a pivotal role in facilitating its smuggling into the country.
"From the very first dose, there's addiction," said Karim.
His deputy, Ali Abdullah, called it "a plague that totally destroys individuals", noting a hike in drug consumption in Iraq since 2016.
Iraqi security forces now announce near-daily drug busts and arrests, in operations supported by intelligence and co-operation with neighbouring countries.
Iraqi authorities detained more than 10,000 suspects between October and June for "crimes related to narcotics -- traffickers, resellers or consumers", said Hussein al-Tamimi, spokesman for Iraq's narcotics directorate.
According to the government agency, security forces also seized 10 million Captagon pills and 500kg of other drugs, including at least 385kg of crystal meth.
A regional meeting Baghdad hosted in May saw "the creation of a shared database" to exchange information between authorities across borders, al-Tamimi said.
That meeting also led to "the establishment of weekly contacts between our services and the competent services of Arab states" and of other countries in the region, he added.
According to an AFP tally based on official records, at least 110 million Captagon pills have been seized across the Middle East this year.
In mid-July, Iraq's interior ministry announced the discovery of a rare Captagon manufacturing lab in the country's south.
It was the first such announcement in a country where drug production remains virtually nonexistent.
A Western diplomat stationed in Baghdad said Iraq's emerging importance for Captagon trafficking may be attributed in part to a crackdown in neighbouring Jordan.
Jordan has reinforced its borders in a bid to cut off trade routes via its territory and set up a forum to tackle smuggling from Syria, while Jordanian security forces often open fire at suspected drug traffickers.
Until about seven years ago, Iraq had been almost exclusively a transit country, but that has gradually changed as drugs can also replace payment for rights of passage, said the diplomat, requesting anonymity.
The domestic resale that resulted has generated local consumption and "potentially... a real market", the diplomat added, noting the high proportion of young people among Iraq's 43-million population.
Recognising the risks, the government has opened three rehabilitation centres -- in Anbar province, Kirkuk in the north and Najaf in central Iraq -- with plans to expand the scheme to other provinces.
Their aim is to give addicts who have been arrested a place to recover, away from traffickers in prison.