Baghdad Squatters Face Deadline to Leave

As Baghdad neighborhoods have been redrawn along sectarian lines, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes. Many have becomes squatters, occupying houses abandoned by others.

The Iraqi general leading the new security crackdown has said those illegally occupying houses must leave within 15 days or provide proof they're renting the property from the legal owners. But reversing the tide of sectarian cleansing in the capital won't be easy.

When Iraqi troops recently ordered Sunnis to leave houses they were illegally occupying in Gazalia, frantic residents appealed to the local American commander for help.

They said they had nowhere else to go. They had been driven from Shiite neighborhoods and had moved to houses abandoned by similarly terrorized Shiites.

The Iraqi army's demands caught U.S. Capt. Eric Peterson by surprise.

He has since reached an agreement with local forces that suspended the effort to kick people out. There are more pressing security problems right now, Peterson said.

Where possible, he is trying to legalize the living arrangements — helping people swap homes, or arrange for leases. But Peterson says the process will take time.

To entice people to return to their homes, the government has promised about $200 for any family willing to move back. But Col. Jeff Peterson, the U.S. commander in the volatile South Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, says the sectarian divide is hard to overcome quickly.

When Abdul Ameer Ayad heard about the government's new policy on squatters, he panicked. He is a Shiite who fled the Al Kadra neighborhood after many other Shia were killed there.

In Hurriyah, Moqtada al-Sadr's office gave Abdul the house of a Sunni family who had moved out.

The local office for Sadr — the radical Shiite cleric — knew where the abandoned houses were. More often than not, militiamen from Sadr's Mehdi Army forced the Sunnis out.

Abdul doesn't like that process. He does not agree with sectarian cleansing. But he says he had no choice. It was the only way to keep his family safe.

"The government can say whatever it wants, but if it tells me to leave, I will not," he said in Arabic. "Where can I go?"

Abdul says Shia who have tried to go back to their homes have been killed.

Abdul sympathizes with the Sunni family now living in his old house, but not everyone feels that way.

Scarred by having to flee their cherished homes, many Iraqis refuse to give squatters the legal right to live in their houses. And for some squatters it's hard to find the owners.

The family who helped kick out 31-year-old Haidar Jassim is now asking for the legal right to live in his house. Fighting back tears, Haidar rejects their claim. He says they occupied his house and threw his sister and her possessions outside.

Yet if he doesn't give them a lease, he fears the neighbhors will harm another sister, who has stayed in the neighborhood.

Fearing eviction, squatters are now fueling a flourishing market in faked rental agreements. In the ongoing chaos, there's no real way to check — and there is "a crisis of trust," as one Baghdad resident says, leaving much room for extortion and threats to resolve the housing sitation.

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