- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

BAGHDAD — Last year, Fadhel al-Saraf moved his family from its plush two-story, four-bedroom villa in the Amariyah quarter of Baghdad after unknown assailants killed his brother.

His house, valued at $476,000 in 2004, remains untouched and on the market. The asking price is down to $200,000.

On the other side of town, in Mansour, where prosperous Iraqis, high-ranking government officials and foreign diplomats reside along narrow, palm-lined streets, a similar house that sold for $100,000 in 2003 now fetches $350,000.

Glaring disparities like these have turned Baghdad’s real estate market inside out and can be summed up in one word: security.

The rush to live in Baghdad’s safer enclaves has caused many home prices in those areas to nearly quadruple since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. The increase has been helped by an influx of foreign investment and wealthy expatriates.

Homeowners in Baghdad’s more turbulent neighborhoods have not been so lucky.

There, relentless insurgent attacks, frequent kidnappings of affluent Iraqi civilians and the rise of Shi’ite militia execution squads during the past year have driven down home prices by more than half.

Complicating home sales across the board is a campaign of violence against real estate agents. Islamic extremists who oppose profits from land sales and dealings with foreigners have killed dozens of agents this year alone, brokers say. The slayings have prompted some agents to quit the business and others to sharply limit with whom they will work, further slowing sales.

Ali al-Kafagi, 45, a real estate agent in Mansour, said 15 of his colleagues were killed in Baghdad last year, including two of his cousins last April.

“Two armed men entered their offices and shot them,” said Mr. Kafagi, whose family’s real estate office has been operating since 1960. “There were other people in the office at the time, but they only killed the agents. They knew who they wanted.”

Another broker, Ali Kadhem Mustafa, 46, was so unnerved by the slayings of four agents near his office in September that he has left his job, at least temporarily.

Islamic extremists, Mr. Mustafa said, “believe the land is God’s and no one should buy or sell it.”

Neither the violence nor the slow market has stopped real estate agents from selling houses, but it has changed the way many operate. Listings in Baghdad often are handled through personal connections and word of mouth. It is a more discreet approach.

Real estate agencies often do not post signs advertising houses for sale. On other houses, banners detailing the specifics of a house hang from a balcony. Potential buyers are instructed to knock on the door or call a telephone number to inquire.

Nameer Hababa runs a real estate office in Baghdad’s upscale Arasat neighborhood, where home prices average $500,000. Even there, in a locale known for calm, Mr. Hababa said, he must take precautions lest he become a target.

“If I don’t know them, I don’t sell to them,” he said.

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