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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

IRAQ: Property commission gives displaced people hope

BAGHDAD, 25 May 2004 (IRIN) - Wheat farmer Said Baquuth, 35, and his extended family of 16 live in one room of an abandoned Iraqi army building on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad. Family members sit on simple carpets on the floor watching TV, their bed mats rolled up in one corner. They share cooking facilities with other families also living in the noisy roadside building.

Baquuth and his family have been living in these circumstances since last April when peshmerga (Kurdish guerrillas) came and forced them out of their farm in northeastern Iraq, he told IRIN. "We were scared so we left all of our things there and ran away that night."

Now Baquuth's case is just one of thousands being tackled by the Iraq Property Claims Commission (IPPC), set up in January by the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. The commission has hired lawyers and other administrators to take people's claims and try to help them get back their property or give them money if they had their property taken between July 1968 and 9 April 2003. It is offering hope to many, but given the weight of claims, complicated legal processes and large number of properties, progress is likely to be slow.

Up to a million Iraqis are estimated to be displaced in their own country as a result of expulsion policies that the former regime used to remove opponents and gain valuable land in the southern marshes and in the north.

"Arabisation" programmes were responsible for expelling thousands of Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrians from the fertile and oil-rich area of Kirkuk. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Kurds have been attempting to reverse the process, which in turn has led to the displacement of Arabs in the north.

Displaced people were sometimes given nominal amounts of money for their homes or sometimes nothing at all, and told to move on. The commission will deal with any property that was taken illegally by the former regime, or taken by illegal means, said Nejem Abid Hassan, head of one of four Baghdad property claims offices opened recently in the Jadriyah neighborhood, about 15 kilometres from Baquuth's temporary quarters.

While many documents in central government ministries were looted or burned immediately following the fall of Baghdad to Coalition forces, most real estate documents still exist, the lawyers say. Many families also hold some sort of document showing what belongs to them, which will help to reach a solution.

The larger challenge will be trying to work out who gets the house and who gets money when a property has been bought and sold three or four times since it was originally seized, Hassan said. Many cases may require a decision from the Ministry of Justice, he said. A three-judge panel has been set up to hear cases.

Processing of these claims might take months or years, he said, adding that the commission's work was just a first step. Almost 17,000 claims have been filed in the last two months alone.

Those who file a claim say whether they want to have their house back or if they would be willing to sell it outright or rent it to the new inhabitants, many of whom have lived in the houses for more than 10 years.

In the future, US administrators have announced plans to build numerous new housing units, especially in southern Iraq. Funds for the projects will come from oil revenues, Hassan said. But the commission has already run into a major snag. US-led administrators are scheduled to return sovereignty to Iraqis on 30 June. Decisions on the initial claims were supposed to be made within 45 days, according to a commission handbook. But now commission members are waiting to see what happens with a new government. No new governing body has been formed, although UN officials are currently in Iraq discussing the matter with a broad spectrum of Iraqis.

These things should be backed up by the court, or we will have chaos, said Haidar Ali Kaijoon, another lawyer working in the Jadriyah office. Our main job is to give a green light to the cases that are easy to solve, he added.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs

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This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004



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