ROME - Italian police seized 215,000 doses of prohibited substances as they smashed a ring that supplied steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs to customers around the world, including American soldiers in Iraq, a police official said Monday.
The U.S. military in Iraq had no immediate comment, but the popularity of steroid abuse has long been discussed as American troops and contractors in Iraq work out in gyms set up in bases and even in the mirrored halls of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.
Joe Donahue, program director for the Vietnam Vets of America Foundation, who spent 16 months in Iraq - often lifting weights in the Green Zone gyms - said steroids were on offer for those who wanted them.
"I had them offered to me by an Iraqi guy who sure as hell looked like he was using them," Donahue said. "There were guys I'm pretty sure were juicing, but not a lot of them."
He said a pair of Iraqi bodybuilders known casually as "the large brothers" sold steroids and other supplements in the Green Zone building where he worked. "I can say with no equivocation, I was offered steroids," Donahue told The Associated Press.
Private security contractors told AP that steroid use also is a problem among their employees because the drugs are readily available in Iraq - as easy as buying a soda from the local stores, according to one contractor.
The police investigation in Italy began after a post office in Trieste, in northeastern Italy, reported that U.S. postal authorities in Iraq returned hundreds of packets of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs because they were improperly addressed, according to Mario Bo, head of the Trieste police department's criminal division.
He said authorities arrested two Slovenians last month when they raided an apartment in Trieste. Sasco Tacs, 30, and a 20-year-old woman, Vesna Milosevic, were charged with trafficking in prohibited substances.
The drugs had been ordered over the Internet, and Italian officials presume some reached their destinations, police said, adding that steroids were also sent to customers in Europe, North America and Australia. They estimated the ring may have had as many as 1,000 customers around the world.
Synthetic derivatives of testosterone, anabolic steroids are thought to enhance aggressiveness.
Steroids have serious side effects, encompassing both psychological disturbance and physical symptoms, such as the development of breasts in men, baldness and cancer, as well as major depression, mania and other mood problems.
Every war seems to have its drug of choice. German soldiers were said to have been given steroids during World War II to make them meaner. The stress of combat led to use of marijuana by some American soldiers fighting in Vietnam.
U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan submit to regular drug tests but are not routinely tested for steroid use, according to a report in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
In Afghanistan, U.S. Col. James Yonts said: "We do not issue steroids to soldiers for any reason, bodybuilding or whatever, other than for medical purposes. I'm not aware of any investigation or any problem of steroid use by soldiers in Afghanistan."
Beefed up U.S. soldiers are a common sight in Iraq, where many work out using makeshift gym equipment near their sleeping quarters or in elaborate gyms at large bases such as in Tikrit, north of Baghdad.
Inside one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces on the sprawling Tikrit base, a mirror-walled gym rivaling many in the West is routinely packed with heaving soldiers pumping iron on bench presses, arm curls and other equipment.
Some soldiers have questioned how some of their more rippling fellow soldiers could have built up such bulk while in a war zone, suggesting that steroid use may have been taking place. But they had no independent confirmation to back up their suspicions.
Troops and some contractors receive mail at inexpensive domestic U.S. postal rates, allowing soldiers to order almost anything online. Packages mailed from home are one of the chief smuggling routes for alcohol, which the U.S. military prohibits its soldiers from drinking.
Bo, the Trieste police official, said authorities were ready to cooperate in any international investigation, but that they had not been approached by U.S. authorities.
The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera said authorities believe the Slovenians received orders for the drugs on three Internet sites run by servers in Slovenia, Poland and Lithuania.
Italy has tough laws against the use of performance-enhancing drugs, with athletes risking prison terms if detected.
Medical writer Emma Ross in London and correspondents Jim Krane in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Paul Garwood in Cairo and Dan Cooney in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.