Iraq panel tries to right Saddam’s land grabs

BAGHDAD (AFP) — When it came to property grabs, the regime of executed dictator Saddam Hussein was more than fair: it took what it could from the people, no matter what their religious persuasion or ethnic origins.

For the past five years a compensation team has faced the mammoth task of trying to right the wrongs of the Saddam era, during which it says Iraqis were dealt with unjustly across the board.

“Saddam was fairly even-handed when it came to this kind of injustice. He was unjust to all — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians,” said Ayad Hassan Ali, deputy head of the Commission for the Resolution of Real Property Disputes.

“Injustice was meted out no matter what people’s ethnicity,” said Ali, a lawyer by training like 60 percent of the commission’s staff of 1,660 full-timers from director Ahmed al-Barrak down.

Rafah Abdel Rahman, in bright pink lipstick and wearing matching headscarf and blouse, had dressed smartly to pick up a cheque for 65 million Iraqi dinars (58,200 dollars), her share of compensation from the commission offices.

But she was not happy.

“What can I do? They took our land away. It’s been in the family ever since 1986,” said Abdel Rahman, whose relatives have now had to return the land, orchard and house to the rightful owners.

She said her father had bought the land in good faith at an auction organised by the finance ministry under Saddam’s regime. But the panel found it had been seized from the original owners.

The property is in Jadriyah — prime real estate in today’s Baghdad.

After a four-year claims process, the claimant’s property was returned, while Rahman and her other family members were paid a total of 750 million dinars (671,500 dollars), calculated on today’s value.

The commission’s task, working from its computerised main offices in Baghdad and branches around Iraq, is to settle claims for land and real estate seized, confiscated or bought by force or at unfair prices by Saddam’s regime.

“One of the key aims of the new administration is to work for justice and equality between Iraqis and to return people’s stolen rights,” said Ali, whose desk sports a small statue of Lady Justice.

The independent commission was set up under the Governing Council of Iraq’s then US administrator Paul Bremer and officially began work on April 13, 2004, a year after the US-led invasion which overthrew Saddam.

So far it has been flooded with 153,000 claims, with the disputed northern city of Kirkuk — subjected to Saddam’s Arabisation policies that evicted Kurdish residents — topping the list of grievances with 41,500.

Baghdad, where land prices have risen dramatically, has 18,000 claims, while the executed dictator’s hometown of Tikrit also features high on the list.

The commission’s initial procedure after a successful ruling in favour of a claimant was that the original owner had the right to reclaim the property, and current occupants could then seek compensation from the previous seller.

“This complicated procedure created problems,” said Talib Jawad, who coordinates with UN agencies in training and providing other technical support for the panel.

The law was amended in 2006 to authorise the finance ministry to step in and settle successful claims directly.

The party returning the property to its original owner is now entitled to compensation as long as it was not awarded the land as a gift from the former regime.

If the rightful owners opt for compensation rather than a return of the property, then they are paid by the finance ministry, which seizes any gift from the former regime.

The panel has so far approved finance ministry payouts of 285 billion dinars (more than 255 million dollars) in compensation to 16 groups of citizens, varying in number according to the size of the family or tribe.

Ahmed Sadoon, a manager in the commission, said the first payments were made only in December 2007, after the process had been stalled by efforts to pass the amendment.

The looting and burning of official buildings in the chaos which followed the invasion was another obstacle.

And the seven senior government-appointed judges, all brought out of retirement to rule on claims, are mostly in their 80s, with their advanced age also slowing the process.

Some claims turn out to be bogus, while others are rejected, but only after a full investigation.

Many cases involve Faili Kurds, who are Shiites, unlike most Kurds. They were expelled from northeast Iraq when Saddam’s minority Sunni Arab-led regime waged war on Iran in 1980.

They were often forced out without their belongings and no longer have the paperwork to substantiate their claims. But the commission is still able to investigate using real estate registration records.

The same applies to Shiite Arabs, detained in their droves in the dead of night and trucked to the border with mostly Shiite Iran after been branded “Persian” enemies of their home country.

A key issue is whether Saddam’s government took the property or land for legitimate public purposes, or as presents for Saddam’s dreaded sons Uday and Qusay and their cronies in the ruling Baath party.

If it was for public use such as an official building, compensation is paid if the original owners were not paid at all or paid an unfair price.

Investigations will continue “until the claims stop. There is no deadline until the work is completed,” said Jawad.

Ali said the process requires lengthy searches of land registry and municipality records. For claims from outside Iraq, the process is even more complicated because both sides need to remain in contact.