BAGHDAD (Reuters Life!) - A new kind of death squad is roaming the streets of Baghdad, killers packing hunting rifles and poisoned meat.
Their prey: the estimated 1 million stray dogs that multiplied in the Iraqi capital as violence paralyzed public services following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
With the improvement in security over the past 2-3 years, authorities are reviving a Saddam-era practice of culling Baghdad's stray dog population.
"We could consider this the biggest campaign of dog execution ever," Baghdad chief veterinarian Mohammed al-Hilly said this week, accompanying a team of shooters.
Hilly said the campaign had so far killed 42,000 dogs since it started two months ago. More than half were poisoned.
"This can be considered a victory," he said, as the culling team laid into a pack of dogs.
In the Shula district of northwestern Baghdad, children gathered with sticks to prod the slain animals amid discarded litter. The dead dogs were loaded onto a tractor to be thrown into pits at Baghdad's refuse dumps.
Overall violence in Iraq has dropped sharply since the height of sectarian war in 2006-07 that killed tens of thousands of people.
Culling stray dogs was a nightly routine under Saddam, but the rapid deterioration in security after the U.S. invasion kept the veterinary teams off the streets.
Hilly also blamed the burgeoning dog population on the huge amounts of litter that began heaping up in the capital as violence paralyzed public services.
Now, authorities have 20 dedicated teams each consisting of two shooters and two veterinarians, often accompanied by police patrols on daytime operations.
The campaign is financed to the tune of 35 million Iraqi dinars ($30,000) from the Baghdad Governorate Council and mayor's office.
Kareema Mousa, head of the department of health and environment in the Baghdad governorate council, said there were an estimated 1.25-1.5 million stray dogs in Baghdad, a city of some 7 million people.
"They cause many diseases for humans, so to eliminate them is a service to the citizens," said Mousa.
Hilly said they expect to get the number down to a manageable level within a year. He defended the cull as the only option given the huge number of dogs in the capital.
In Shula district, local resident Mohammed Hussein showed the teams where to hunt.
"I wish they would kill all the dogs because they are harmful, they carry diseases and I'm afraid for my children," said the 40-year-old father of nine. "We encourage them in their campaign and we are ready to help."
Editing by Matt Robinson and Paul Casciato