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Squatters Stay Put for Now

Homeless Baghdadis have no option but to squat in ex-government buildings.
By Ali Nagi

Saad Sami may not have a home to call his own, but he’s not complaining.


The former soldier in the Republican Guard is now happily squatting in the home of his hated former commanding officer, a colonel from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.


“I decided after the fall of the regime to kill him, but he was lucky enough to have escaped to Tikrit,” said Sami, who said the colonel used to extort money from his own troops.


“I found the house locked, so I broke down the doors and moved in. I wrote ‘inhabited’ on the door to prevent others trying to occupy it. I'm quite happy now living beside the Tigris River with a nice view and a good breeze.”


But very few of Baghdad's thousands of squatters are as content as Sami. There are no official estimates of their number in the Iraqi capital, but the scale of the problem is such that former government buildings are occupied by people who would otherwise be homeless.


A building near Baghdad airport that once housed the government agency which produced military medals and statues of Saddam Hussein now shelters 25 families.


Elsewhere, the former dining hall and market for the headquarters of the Republican Guard is home for more than 100 families.


"It's better to live in this empty building than to pay 20,000 dinars (about 20 US dollars) per month for one room," said Ali Ibrahim, a handicapped veteran of the 1991 Gulf War and father of five children.


Ali's monthly retirement stipend of 7,000 dinars wouldn’t even cover the rent on that one room, and his ten-year-old son has quit school to earn more money for the family.


So Ali will keep squatting unless the government offers an affordable alternative. Ali and others complain, though, that they have been virtually ignored by the government and that nearby residents view them with suspicion.


“We’ve never been visited by a government official even once,” Ali said. “The only people who have come to visit us were a group of Italian journalists.”


Iraq’s minister of construction and housing, Bakar Jubur al-Zubeidi, admits that solving the problems of squatters is low on the government's list of priorities.


The ministry is building 3,500 new housing units, but he said top priority for those will go to “victims of the previous regime”.


Housing officials say that the issue of squatters in former government buildings is low on the list of priorities right now. "We just implement projects that the government orders," said al-Zubeidi.


At present, the ministry has no orders to help the squatters and no power to make policy decisions of its own.


For the moment, the lack of government interest may be a blessing in disguise for the squatters, leaving them in place at least for the time being. But once the ministry of housing is able to focus on the issue, it seems likely that the squatters will simply be kicked out.


Indeed, some government agencies are already eyeing the squatters and see the day when they’ll be removed. "The law will be applied to them when the security situation in the country stabilises," said Raed Muhammed Hassan Magi, general director of the Baghdad Office of Public Real Estate.


Almost all of the squatters expressed a willingness to leave once the government offers them alternative residences. But without such assurances, most of them won't leave peacefully.


“We won't leave without a solution,” one said, “even if it costs us our lives."


Ali Nagi is an IWPR trainee journalist.


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