By Bassam Sebti
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
BAGHDAD -- Every morning, Sajida Abboud slips out of the simple room she shares with her husband and two children and, eyes downcast, tries to leave unnoticed for her job as an elementary school teacher. She does not want her pupils to catch sight of her leaving the trash-strewn former government building where she has lived illegally as a squatter since the U.S.-led invasion 2 1/2 years ago.
Abboud, 35, moved to the building in the Baladiyat neighborhood in eastern Baghdad after her landlady forced her from her home of 14 years because she could not pay the rent, she said. When Saddam Hussein was in power, landlords could not evict tenants who were unable to pay. But when the Americans came to Iraq, Abboud said, her landlady persuaded U.S. troops to kick her family out of their dwelling, telling the soldiers that "we were terrorists, Baathists."
Abboud is among the Iraqis -- their numbers are estimated in the thousands -- illegally occupying empty buildings because they have no other place to go. Such people represent a looming challenge for Iraq's fledgling government as it grapples with a host of other problems, including shortages of electricity, potable water and fuel.
Mohammed Hareeri, spokesman for the Housing and Reconstruction Ministry, said the number of homeless in Iraq was a "huge, huge problem."
Hareeri said Iraq was short 3.38 million housing units, which will cost $120 billion to construct. "There are no such funds," he said. "We are a country under debt."
After the invasion, landlords across Iraq seized the opportunity to increase rents and force out people who could not pay. Within weeks, thousands of suddenly homeless families had started looking for abandoned buildings. Many of them occupied buildings that had belonged to the government, including museums, military barracks and offices such the one where Abboud and her family now live.
About 15 men, women and children who live in that complex gathered around a visitor recently in a yard with open sewers and trash cans swarming with flies, shouting in protest over their living conditions. The residents blame the government for not providing enough housing.
"Do you see our room?" Abboud said of the unfurnished space she shares with her husband and children. "You cannot put three hens in there, not three people."
Nearby, a teenage girl stood in a small brick room that Abboud said serves as both kitchen and bathroom. "We have endured living in this terrible place," Abboud said.
Abboud and her family live with 27 other families. In interviews, many said they had no alternative but to continue squatting in these buildings.
"I had no other choice," said Abboud, who wore a loose orange and red smock, draped with a black abaya , the traditional Iraqi dress for religious women. "We were about to sleep in the street."
Earlier this year, U.S. troops backed by Iraqi police came to force the squatters out, Abboud said. They told her that the building, which once served as an Iraqi military commissary, was to be turned into a police station.
The squatters were stunned.
"They told us to leave and find other places," said Sabriya Abdul Ridha, 52, a widow with five daughters and a son. Abdul Ridha, a cleaner at the Technical Institute in Baghdad, said she had to leave her old house after her husband died and the owner raised the rent.
"I am worried about my daughters. They are teenagers," Abdul Ridha said.
In an e-mail, a U.S. military spokesman said that evictions were the responsibility of the Iraqi government. The spokesman declined to comment on specific incidents.
The defense minister in Iraq's transitional government, Sadoun Dulaimi, said he approved a proposal several months ago to clear squatters from military buildings and compounds. "Some of these buildings had become bases for terrorists and car-bomb makers," he said.
But Hareeri, the Housing Ministry spokesman, said the government would not enforce the decision until a new government is formed. The government is currently compiling results from a constitutional referendum on Oct. 15. If the constitution is approved, voters will elect a new, permanent government in December.
"Once the government becomes strong, these squatters will be forced out," Hareeri said.
To address the housing crisis, Housing Minister Jasim Mohammed Jafar said, the government is building 16 residential complexes in cities throughout Iraq, including Kirkuk, Mosul, Karbala and Basra. Many of the projects will need private funding, he said.
But officials cannot say who will get to live in them.
For example, in the Sabe Abkar neighborhood of northern Baghdad, the Housing Ministry is building 288 units on farmland that used to belong to Hussein's half brother. The government seized the land for the project, which includes a market and a school.
The complex is about 70 percent complete, government officials said. It was started in December 2003 and is scheduled to be finished this December, according to a sign posted outside the neat rows of two-story concrete structures with windows shaped like narrow steeples.
Guards said a group of people came recently to photograph the complex, saying they were from the contracting office that was building the apartments.
The next day, vandals scrawled graffiti on one of the buildings, signing it as the work of the "Omar army," an Iraqi group connected to the Jordanian radical Abu Musab Zarqawi, who pledges loyalty to al Qaeda. The painted message warned that the complex would be blown up because the units were going to be given to members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major Shiite political party.
Hareeri referred questions about the future tenants to Iraq's prime minister and other governmental leaders. Laith Kubba, spokesman for the prime minister, said he "had no idea about the matter," either. "I am sorry for not being able to answer your question," he said. "You may contact the minister of housing."
Abboud said she had no idea where her family would go if they were forced to leave. "At least let them provide us tents in a camp like the Palestinians," she said.
Her voice choked, Abboud pointed to all the squatters who gathered around her and said: "We are really lost. We need a homeland. We are without a homeland."
Staff writer Jackie Spinner and special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.