- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

BASRA, Iraq — The morning began with an angry knock on a metal gate. Within minutes, eight men were brawling in the street. A punch pulverized a cheekbone, a knife sliced an ear. A pistol was pressed to a temple, the trigger pulled and then — click — the gun jammed.

Another day, another neighborhood, another squabble over real estate.

Beyond political, ethnic and religious differences, one of the toughest challenges facing the new Iraq is to figure out who owns what in a country where the old dictator used people and property for a two-decade game of musical chairs.

“This is one of the biggest problems we’re going to face,” said acting Maj. Abdul Karim Kaden of the newly reconstituted Basra police department, grimacing as an officer dropped a report on his desk, then slamming his fist into the paperwork when he read it: Another property dispute.

“See what I mean?” he said, flipping through the pages.

Saddam Hussein drove 800,000 Iraqis out of the country during his rule, and they are starting to trickle back now that he’s gone, usually sending a single emissary to scout the security situation in a leaderless, lawless land.

Many are finding other people living on their property — some renters, some squatters, some with paperwork proving that they, too, own a dwelling that may have been among thousands confiscated by the government, then sold and resold, again and again.

Other people are even poaching bricks from looted buildings and abandoned construction sites to put up homes on vacant property, assuming that it’s open season on open spaces.

“This is free land,” said Sami Hamid Saleh, 33, who has a perfectly square, knee-high perimeter of masonry as the beginnings of a trim new home.

Besides exiled Iraqis, thousands of Kuwaitis, Saudis and other Middle Easterners owned summer homes in Iraq before 1990, when the country invaded and annexed Kuwait. The report just handed to Maj. Kaden involved a Kuwaiti woman seeking to evict the renters of her Basra house.

Saddam himself is fair game for people who invested in Iraq before they were kicked out. An Iraqi recently produced papers that show he owns the land under Saddam’s magnificent Basra palace.

Clashes over property are a classic outgrowth of war, or a jolting change in a government’s ideology, part of the natural friction that develops between the people who fled and the people who stayed.

Fourteen years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany is still sorting through the myriad claims for East German land by owners who fled to West Germany during four decades of Stalinist rule. Poland, the Czech Republic and others still worry about Germans coming back to claim property they were expelled from after World War II.

In the coming weeks, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees plans to begin its first organized repatriation of Iraqi refugees: 5,000 to 6,000 POWs and army deserters who have been waiting in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf War.

But refugee workers realize they are feeding what will surely become a bonfire of housing disputes.

“A lot of them are already coming back, but it’s hard to say how many,” said Amin Awad, regional coordinator for the U.N. agency. “It’s going to be a serious obstacle. We have a lot of tension.”

Such tension has left Fawzi Raheem Hussein with a bleeding ulcer, he said, a legacy of the March 23 brawl that broke his cheekbone. British troops had just invaded the city. In the chaos that followed, his landlord showed up with his son and four other men, ordering the family of 15 out of their five-room house.

One visitor produced a gun and got off a few poorly-aimed rounds, he said, then pressed the pistol to Mr. Hussein’s temple.

Mr. Hussein showed a reporter the 7 mm round that popped out when the automatic jammed. Neighbors broke up the melee, and Mr. Hussein’s son rode his motorbike to a nearby British military compound to complain. Mr. Hussein said the soldiers arrived in minutes, hunted unsuccessfully for the assailants, then left a phone number for the family to call if they have more problems.

“He’s threatened to come back,” Mr. Hussein said of his landlord. “I definitely feel nervous about the situation.”

Imad Raheem Mahdi, the landlord’s son, told a different story. He said Mr. Hussein started the violence by slashing his father’s ear. He said he did produce a gun, but denies firing it.

The history of this house parallels that of Saddam’s Iraq. Mr. Hussein said he went house-hunting in 1986 because his previous dwelling was too vulnerable to artillery shelling from Iran. The border was barely 10 miles away and the 1980-88 war was raging over the oil-rich frontier lands claimed by both countries.

He contacted a real-estate agent, who showed him a house owned by an Iraqi woman living abroad. So Hussein moved in with his adult son and his brother, and the family soon multiplied. Because he was a supervisor in the national telephone company, he paid only a nominal rent.

Then came the 1991 war over Kuwait, followed by anti-Saddam rebellions by Kurds in the north and Shi’ites in the south. The landlord demanded the family vacate the building because the real owner might be returning to Iraq to claim her house. It never happened.

Yet the agent continued to harass Mr. Hussein, he said, and he went to court, which ruled that his lease was good until the overseas owner returned.

“If she comes back, then we’ll leave,” Mr. Hussein said. “But I don’t think the agent really represents her.”

The 1991 war and ensuing rebellions account for most of the 800,000 refugees living mostly in neighboring countries.

Refugee officials expected 600,000 people to flee Iraq during the most recent war. Instead, almost the reverse occurred: Families that had been packed into inadequate housing rushed into the streets to grab a sudden abundance of public buildings and villas vacated by Saddam’s supporters.

Like gold miners staking their claim, squatters in virtually every city have put signs on their newfound property, saying things such as “Two families living here,” to dissuade additional squatters.

Even businesses trying to ward off squatters, and looters have posted signs saying their property is already filled. At a walled, four-villa housing complex with a sign saying “Six families living here,” a doorman admitted: “Nobody actually lives here.”

Some Iraqis, confronted with a convincing deed to a place they are renting, simply hang their heads and break the news to wife and kids.

A representative of an expatriate Iraqi family recently knocked on the door of Dyaal Deen, a 39-year-old father of six whose prized possession, a 1971 Fiat, is also his livelihood.

“I spend five days using it for deliveries and as a taxi, and two days underneath it trying to keep it running,” he said, grinning and extending grease-smeared hands.

Mr. Deen looked at the paperwork offered by the home’s actual owner. “My world became a small, dark place. I thought: What am I going to do with my family?”

He packed his family and possessions into the tiny car. They lived in it for a day before he found a room at a refugee camp of about 40 families.

Mr. Awad of the UNHCR believes Iraq will ultimately need a commission to settle property claims, some of which would tax the most Solomonic judge.

The real-estate agent who has been trying to get Mr. Hussein out of his house in Basra was in the central Iraq city of Karbala and unreachable by phone. But Mr. Mahdi, his 31-year-old son, was working at a busy little operation selling water in this parched part of the world.

Mr. Mahdi said his father became the house’s agent after the owner was exiled from Iraq in 1982. She authorized him to rent the place until she could return, and has been living in the United States with her second husband.

Her first husband, a professor at Amman University in Jordan, has been pressuring Mr. Mahdi’s father to clear the house out so it can be sold, since a divorce settlement gives him a stake in the proceeds, Mr. Mahdi said.

Yes, the broker lost a court case to the renter, Mr. Hussein, but the younger Mr. Mahdi said it was because Mr. Hussein was a member of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, and the courts had decreed that rents paid for the homes of exiled owners should go to various government agencies.

“The court made a decision in favor of Hussein,” Mr. Mahdi said, “… because his rent was being paid directly to the court. We haven’t seen any rent since 1986.”

He has his own version of what happened in the street that morning of March 23.

“Yes, we went that day to his home,” Mr. Mahdi said. “He said he had a court order saying the place was his. We said the court order is from the old regime.”

Yes, Mr. Mahdi had a handgun, but he denied firing it. He said he brandished it only after Mr. Hussein whipped out a knife, lunged at Mr. Mahdi’s father and sliced a flap in his left ear that took a few stitches to close.

Mr. Mahdi and his father considers all the transactions that transpired since the original owner was exiled obsolete. As for the exiled woman in the United States, “It’s her property, and we need to protect it,” Mr. Mahdi said. “Of course, she’ll want it back.”

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