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Squatters take over abandoned homes, offices across Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In luxury condominiums once leased to Republican Palace staffers, in newly built government offices behind high walls and barbed wire, in makeshift shelters all over Baghdad, squatters have become the latest flashpoint for postwar tensions.

Many are families squeezing into one-room apartments or setting up gas burners in empty bathrooms because they've been evicted from their homes after losing their jobs during the war. Others, armed with big sticks, claim that the owners of completely bare apartments have asked them to watch over their property. Still others feel they have a right to Saddam Hussein's property.

All are seeking a sense of place in a new Iraq.

With no police force, no jail and only the barest beginnings of a court system, citizens have been taking matters into their own hands, nowhere more so than where they live. What is unclear is who will settle the disputes sure to arise.

Kassam Mohammed and his wife, Basama Jaboori, have staked a claim in a former Republican Guard compound to a first-floor office that used to handle perks and payments to Saddam's friends.

Mohammed, an electrician, has jury-rigged an outdoor faucet into a shower and, using one wire, supplied electricity to 20 other squatter families in the building. An elaborate maze of cable runs from window to window and building to building. It is enough to power lights, fans and two televisions, but not air conditioning, heating or refrigeration.

"I used to rent a house, but with no work, I cannot afford to pay the rent," said Mohammed, who worked in a restaurant before the war and now operates a generator for the American forces in one of Saddam's palaces for $3 a day. "I have no place else to go."

Mohammed says he will leave if the new government or soldiers ask him to go.

But the U.S. soldiers guarding the compound are largely sympathetic, so long as the squatters—about 45 families—stay behind the large green gates and high walls of the complex. "We could ask them to leave," said Staff Sgt. David Denson, "but these people are not bad people."

Not everyone is as forgiving, however. Wealthier residents who live next door worry that the squatters will steal from them.

"I don't feel good about these people. I wish they would go away," said Mohammed Laith, 20, a student.

"We don't know them. We are afraid of them because we don't trust them," said Abdul Al-Khalik, 46, a retired police officer.

But the military, too, is squatting. Just around the corner from the Republican Guard, PFC Christopher White, 20, of Hartwell, Ga., and his fellow soldiers are camped out in a large 6-bedroom house that used to belong to one of Saddam Hussein's ministers.

And some Iraqi Freedom Party fighters assembled by opposition political candidate Ahmed Chalabi have taken over a house that didn't belong to them.

Sgt. Jeff Moser, who is in charge of a unit that patrols the area, tries to manage the delicate balance between looters and squatters.

"Everyday they're at the gate asking for a home," Moser said. "Or they're saying people are trying to kick them out of their homes. We've been here about two weeks and there's been hundreds of people, easily."

An effort to evict one Baghdad squatter led to the capture of a well-known Republican Guard general.

Bedaa Habem, 23, moved into a vacant river-view condominium built for friends and staffers of Saddam shortly after looters raided it. The residents left behind military uniforms, important papers and photographs identifying the three-story house as belonging to Gen. Wasfe Al Ajely.

When the general's cousin returned to demand the apartment and the documents, Habem pretended the paperwork had been stolen by looters. She told him to send the owner himself, then reported the threats to the U.S. soldiers stationed down the block. When Al-Ajely returned, with a full beard and in disguise, Habem invited him in, asked her mother to keep him busy and then went out the back door to get the soldiers.

She knows that ultimately she may not be able to keep the apartment. But for now, she has no other place to go. She wants her parents and other relatives to join her in the four-bedroom apartment. "I know I did the right thing."

Still the life of a squatter takes its toll.

Firdoos Jaboori, 35, isn't collecting her salary from an agency that helps retirees, and her husband has lost his army salary. Together, they used to make about $64 a month.

"The day before yesterday I quarreled with my husband," Jaboori said. "I said `You don't know what to do, we have no money.' And when he came back yesterday, he didn't bring any food to cook, so we had no dinner."

Today, a neighbor brought lunch for Jaboori and her two children, Hussain, 1, and Noor, 3—macaroni, potato, bread and salad.

Despite the hardship, however, Jaboori said she was satisfied for now. "I don't have everything but I am happy to be in a home of my own with my two children," Jaboori said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SQUATTERS