Squatting a risky move in Baghdad

Times Staff Writer

When Muhannid Halki's father was killed in sectarian fighting, the twentysomething car mechanic fled with his pregnant wife and young child to a vacant home in what he viewed as a safer neighborhood of the capital.

But now, less than two years later, Halki is dead, a victim of the sometimes violent disputes that occur when squatters move into homes vacated in the turmoil since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Such real estate free-for-alls pit dweller against would-be dweller, with the most well-connected and best-armed often prevailing.

Halki, a Sunni Arab, had moved in 2006 from the capital's Shiite-dominated district of Hurriya to a vacant home a few miles south in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Adil. But with improved security in the capital, tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis are returning to their homes, and in some cases, new rounds of squatters are moving in, backed by the muscle of the Shiite-dominated security forces.

Under official policies, neither American military nor Iraqi security forces in Baghdad are allowed to intervene in the subsequent disputes.

But some Iraqi soldiers have disregarded the orders, helping Shiite families claim homes by falsely detaining Sunnis or escorting moving trucks into hostile neighborhoods.

American officers say they are deeply worried about the development but are limited in what they can do.

"We can't become the landlords of Baghdad," said Col. Edward Chesney, who commands an American battalion in west Baghdad.

'Iraq's Beverly Hills'

Residents of Adil once proudly introduced the district to Americans as "Iraq's Beverly Hills" because of its large white-washed mansions. But the wealth also allowed residents to vacate in droves, and their flight to foreign countries made Adil a haven for displaced Sunnis.

About 70% of occupied homes in Adil now have squatters, renters or guards as residents, but the lack of reliable documentation makes it almost impossible to draw lines among those groups, said U.S. Army Capt. Mark Battjes.

"Any or all of them could intend to stay in the homes for the foreseeable future without any payment to the owner, and the law is on their side," said Battjes, who commands soldiers just south of Adil, citing a Baghdad local government policy not to remove displaced Iraqis until they have another home, to reclaim or resettle.

For now, the issue of displaced Iraqis' property rights is largely in the hands of neighborhood advisory councils, low-level political bodies that serve the Baghdad City Council and were established during the early months after the American-led invasion.

The councils attempt to keep records of homeowners, renters and squatters and to facilitate rent payments when possible. But because of jurisdictional boundaries, the councils are not able to play a substantial role in returning the displaced to their rightful homes.

Human rights groups estimate that 1.2 million people have been displaced within Iraq over the last two years and that the need to peacefully resettle them swiftly is crucial. But nearly half of those displaced say they do not intend to return to their old homes and neighborhoods, and that number is expected to increase, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration.

Even so, longtime residents consider the newcomers unwelcome guests. Many blame them for the violence in their neighborhoods, calling them criminals, religious extremists or shrugi, a pejorative implying low class or rural.

"If we had known the problems that this has caused, we would have left them in the street so that the government would have dealt with the problem from the outset," said Basil Zaki Shaker, a 44-year-old electrical engineer and longtime resident of the nearby Jamia neighborhood.

Shaker, a Sunni, said some newcomers had opened small vegetable stalls on the sidewalk, a sight unfamiliar on the residential streets in Adil before the war.

"Of course, we would like to remove them, but the law does not allow this, and we would probably be killed," said Shaker, chairman of Jamia's neighborhood council. "If you are deprived of a home, a wife, a dog, you have nothing to lose."

Neighborhood councils have such limited power that in some cases the leaders are themselves displaced. Ahmad Sabih Tawfeeq, a Sunni and council chairman in the mixed neighborhood of Mansour, three miles from the high-security Green Zone, fled to an undisclosed Baghdad district after members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia killed his brother and put a $10,000 bounty on his head.

"There is so much sadness in me," he said, "that I cannot concentrate on one thing. I don't smoke, I don't drink, but sometimes for no reason, I begin to cry."

U.S. Army Capt. John Dixon, who is responsible for Adil, said, "About 70% of the violence here has the displacement issue at its core. It is the single biggest issue I deal with."

Since October, American military officials and neighborhood council leaders have learned of cases in which Iraqi army personnel threatened Sunni residents with detention to clear the way for Shiite families. They are investigating many more.

The neighborhood council chairman in Adil, Abu Hamsa, said he had repeatedly complained to commanders of the Iraqi army, which is largely Shiite.

"I told the officers that they were threatening the families, and the officer said it was individual, unauthorized behavior," Abu Hamsa said. "In these cases, the soldiers on the street seem to be more powerful than the commanders telling them not intervene."

Col. Chesney said he was deeply worried about the problem. "Worst-case scenario is that they eventually clear Sunnis out of Baghdad," he said.

Violence everywhere

In December 2006, months into the sectarian violence unleashed by the February bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra, Halki's father was killed by members of the Mahdi Army militia, Halki told people he met in Adil.

By the time Halki arrived, the neighborhood had become a collection of faded remnants with exteriors stained brown from the dust, chipped marble staircases and rooms crammed with poverty-stricken families sleeping on floors.

In December 2007, Iraqi soldiers and a Shiite man came calling.

Although the man had no ownership papers for the two-story house with a large courtyard garden, Halki was told that he had just two days to leave, according to U.S. military personnel who informally investigated the case and to neighbors Abd Mahmood, 25, and Yaseen Mahmood, 24.

The Mahmoods, who also were squatting, said Halki was deeply worried and asked them to hide his identification documents. "He was afraid. He started to gather his things. He was wondering where he would go," Yaseen Mahmood said.

Halki left the house to the new Shiite occupant but approached soldiers at a U.S. military outpost at an abandoned mall, where he was told to go the neighborhood council, Dixon said. He never did, council chairman Abu Hamsa said.

Instead, Halki, who had joined a so-called concerned local citizens security force formed by the U.S. military, returned to the house with two other off-duty officers. They all had their guns, including a Glock pistol, Dixon said.

"Given what happened to his father, what do you expect, that he go out and sell flowers?" said Ali Jabo, a supervisor in the group, recently renamed Sons of Iraq, adding that what Halki did was wrong.

The new Shiite occupant allegedly wrested Halki's gun away and shot him in the head. The Shiite man was shot in the side and hospitalized.

Two days later, a grenade went off at the doorstep of a nearby Shiite family who had lived there for three decades, an act interpreted as possible retribution by Sunnis.

The same day, the house once occupied by Halki was set ablaze, leaving the entire home in ashen blisters. "The message [to outsiders] was: Don't try to come back here," Dixon said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.

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