While human beings in Iraq were killing each other in huge numbers, they ignored the dogs, which in turn multiplied at an alarming rate. Now stray dogs are such a menace that municipal workers are hunting them down, having slaughtered some 10,000 in Baghdad just since December. "Give us clean water instead of killing dogs!" Hussein Ali, 62, yelled recently at a group of veterinary employees enticing a pack of strays with meat laced with strychnine. "The dogs are not harming us, it is the water." Many Iraqis still lack the most basic of services, like sewage systems and potable water.With fewer bombs going off and hardly any bodies being dumped anymore, the dogs are perhaps the biggest problem on the filthy and rubble-strewn streets of Baghdad. Packs of strays scare schoolchildren and people who get up at dawn to go to work. They gather at open-air butcher shops where customers choose their meat from flocks of live sheep.Some people believe that the dogs spread disease, not a difficult case to make in a society that generally shuns dogs as pets, believing them to be contrary to Islamic edicts on personal cleanliness.
The holy Shiite city of Karbala was so overwhelmed with stray dogs last year that officials there offered 6,000 dinars, or $5.18, for each animal caught and handed over to the municipality. The dogs were shot and buried en masse.Here in the capital, a program began late last year in which the national Ministry of Agriculture's veterinary services teamed up with the municipality, the police and even the army in some of the tougher neighborhoods to tackle the problem. Mostly the dogs are killed with rotten raw meat laced with strychnine, a poison used in pesticides and against rodents.In some cases, particularly around the city's sprawling garbage dumps, the dogs are instead shot. By the time this campaign is over this month, perhaps 20,000 dogs will have been exterminated, said Shaker Fraiyeh of the ministry's veterinary services company."Our work may be against animal rights, but there is a more important issue: public health," said Dr. Fraiyeh, a veterinarian in his 30s.Dr. Fraiyeh cited two recent cases involving children who contracted rabies after being bitten by stray dogs in the impoverished Sadr City district of Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra.On a recent morning, a dog control team prepared for a mission in eastern Baghdad. Armed with bags of poisoned meat, they hopped into their pickup trucks.They drove past neighborhoods and markets barricaded with concrete blast walls and made their way deep into the New Baghdad district. Buildings still bore the scars of the battles fought last March between American and Iraqi troops and militiamen loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.The first stop was a parking lot in front of a tire repair shop and a streetside butcher stand, where dogs tend to gather, drawn by the tempting discarded innards of sheep. Two men got out of one truck wearing rubber gloves and carrying the bags of meat.They walked over to the parking lot and began tossing the poisoned meat in all directions.A few dogs lazed around. Few approached the meat at first. Then the biggest dog in the pack began nibbling it. A weak brown dog with a bushy tail and a broken leg emerged from under a parked vehicle. The big dog growled to keep it away. After a few attempts, the weak dog finally managed to steal a poisoned strip.Hussein Hazza, a man who had parked his fuel truck in the lot, pitied the weak dog but did not help it. He said the dog had been wounded recently when a construction worker on a nearby site had beat it with a shovel.
"They have hurt no one," said Mr. Hazza, 60. "We say, 'Poor animals."'
The crew prepared to leave, after being harassed a bit over whether dogs were really Iraq's biggest worry. Mr. Ali, the man who had yelled at the team, said he thought clean drinking water was more important. A woman said she hoped that the crew was planning a market.Abdul-Karim Ismail, another veterinarian with the state-owned company dealing with the dogs, said building and maintaining animal shelters and introducing other methods for controlling Baghdad's dog population — like vaccination or neutering — were too costly and complicated in a nation where people had so many more pressing needs.