In Baghdad, Brokers Struggle With the Realty of War

By Omar Fekeiki
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 29, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Mudhar Thamir is a salesman who hasn't sold anything in seven months.

The rent and expenses for his real estate office in Baghdad's Ghazaliya district cost Thamir's family most of his father's pension. And business is so bad that he's been forced to offer extra services to customers, including photocopying and travel reservations to neighboring countries.

In the most violent neighborhoods of the capital, homeowners are trying to unload their properties, hoping to take the cash and get out of Dodge. But they're not finding any buyers, creating a real estate crisis that has disrupted businesses and threatened the already limping economy. Ghazaliya, Amiriyah and Khadra, where most residents are Sunni Arabs, are "endangered neighborhoods," said Thamir, 23, who owns a company called Al-Durar.

"If people have money to spend, they wouldn't spend it here," said Thamir, who last sold a piece of land in early May. The reasons, he said, are a constant stream of military operations and insurgent attacks against the security forces in the area.

Ghazaliya is located on the far western side of the capital. Rows of brick houses and empty plots extend to the horizon, bounded by two highways -- one leading to the most feared road in Baghdad, the airport road, and the other to Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold. In the early 1980s, Saddam Hussein distributed land there to the Sunni Arab members of his army's officer corps who fought in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Other parcels were given to college professors.

Ghazaliya has long drawn property buyers for its low prices compared with other parts of Baghdad, and until about a year ago, the real estate business flourished there because the neighborhood was relatively safe. Then sales decreased gradually but steadily "with the increase of attacks and raids," Thamir said, until they stopped completely in May.

Behind Thamir, a map of Ghazaliya hung on the wall with colored pins marking houses for sale. The map is now pimpled with more than 40 pins. "I haven't had this many pins on the map before," Thamir said. "There wasn't that much supply, and demand was much greater."

As ethnic tensions in Ghazaliya and other Sunni areas drive people away, houses are hard to find in more placid parts of the city, according to Thamir Abdul Ridha, a real estate dealer in eastern Baghdad. He said that a few weeks ago, a Shiite man came to his office in the Abid neighborhood, which he and other residents consider safe. The man, who was looking for a house to rent in the area, said he had lost his wife and mother when gunmen entered his house in the Sunni neighborhood of Jihad, in western Baghdad, and shot them dead.

"People are afraid of these neighborhoods," Abdul Ridha said. "They started to flee Sunni neighborhoods and find places somewhere else." For this reason, he said, he has very few houses for sale, and "if they offer a house for rent today" in Abid, "I'll find a customer tomorrow."

Ghazaliya is adjacent to Abu Ghraib, a town several miles west of Baghdad that has been the scene of frequent insurgent activity. Ghazaliya and neighboring Amiriyah and Khadra, two other predominantly Sunni neighborhoods, make up a "mini Sunni Triangle," attracting insurgents who come there to hide, Thamir said.

When a U.S. military convoy roared down Ghazaliya's main street near his office one recent afternoon, Thamir stopped a conversation and turned to watch, smiling as he followed the vehicles with his eyes. "These four vehicles are the main cause of the problem we are discussing now," he said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces not only fight insurgents regularly in Ghazaliya, they conduct house-to-house searches day and night. Iraqi soldiers and policemen stationed at round-the-clock checkpoints on the main street search cars going in and out of the neighborhood and draw fire from insurgents with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.

Arkan Abdullah, 29, is one of the few people to have bought land in the Ghazaliya neighborhood recently. Now, he said, he wants to sell it. But he can't. The small piece of land, for which he paid $30,000, is being offered through six different real estate offices. "But the highest offer I got was around $26,000," he said. He prefers to wait a few more months until "maybe the security situation improves."

In October, during Islam's holy month of Ramadan, young men opted to leave Ghazaliya and live with relatives in other parts of Baghdad. Many, Thamir said, expected violence to increase during Ramadan and feared being caught between the security forces' guns and the insurgents' grenades or being arrested by Interior or Defense Ministry troops.

"I myself left in October and lived in another neighborhood," Thamir said. When he returned after two weeks, he found that two of his friends had been arrested by the police.

In July, Thamir said, insurgents launched a campaign to kill real estate dealers; more than 10 of them have been killed so far. The reason, many said, is that the insurgents believe the real estate brokers also serve as building contractors for the Americans.

Terrified by the killings, some locked their offices and disappeared. A month later, when the campaign shifted to targeting barbers, the brokers tiptoed back into business.

"We are breadwinners," Thamir said, "and we shouldn't fear their intimidations." He opened his desk drawer to show a hidden AK-47 assault rifle, something he described as "very necessary equipment" for his office.

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