Crisis In Housing Adds To Miseries Of Iraq Mayhem

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
December 29, 2006
Pg. 6

By Michael Luo
BAGHDAD — Along with its many other desperate problems, Iraq is in the midst of a housing crisis that is worsening by the day.
It began right after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, when many landlords took advantage of the removal of his economic controls and raised rents substantially, forcing out thousands of families who took shelter in abandoned government buildings and military bases. As the chaos in Iraq grew and the ranks of the jobless swelled, even more Iraqis migrated to squalid squatter encampments. Still others constructed crude shantytowns on empty plots where conditions were even worse.
Now, after more than 10 months of brutal sectarian reprisals, many more Iraqis have fled their neighborhoods, only to wind up often in places that are just as wretched in other ways. While 1.8 million Iraqis are living outside the country, 1.6 million more have been displaced within Iraq since the war began. Since February, about 50,000 per month have moved within the country.
Shelter is their most pressing need, aid organizations say. Some have been able to occupy homes left by members of the opposing sect or group; others have not been so fortunate. The longer the violence persists, the more Iraqis are running out of money and options.
Shatha Talib, 30, her husband and five children, are among about a thousand struggling Iraqi families that have taken up residence in the bombed-out remains of the former Iraqi Air Defense headquarters and air force club in the center of Baghdad. “Nobody should live in such a place,” she said. “But we don’t have any other option.”
With many families in such encampments or worse, and many others doubled or tripled up in friends’ or relatives’ homes, the deputy housing minister, Istabraq al-Shouk, puts the shortage at two million dwellings across Iraq.
Iraqi officials say that after security, housing is a priority, but plans to address the problem are minimal. The Housing Ministry is building 17 complexes with 500 apartments each across the country for government employees and families of those killed by militants, Mr. Shouk said. That would be 8,500 homes.
Housing officials hope to attract foreign contractors to build about 350,000 more over the next few years, he said, but that depends largely on whether conditions can be made safe enough for them to work.
The shortage exists in many parts of Iraq, Mr. Shouk said. In Kirkuk, many Kurds driven out by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s who returned after the American-led invasion live in tent cities or hastily built houses. A survey of displaced people in Kirkuk by the International Organization for Migration found that more than 20 percent squat in government buildings or improvised settlements.
In Najaf, a southern city, throngs of destitute Shiite families have claimed buildings abandoned by the Baath Party and the government. Any trip across Baghdad, where the problem is particularly acute, reveals dozens of encampments.
The crisis appears more pronounced among Shiites than Sunnis because of the years of economic marginalization they endured under Mr. Hussein. At least two dozen Shiite families are living in an abandoned army hospital in southern Baghdad, having fled Sunni Arab insurgents in the Abu Ghraib area to the west. Hundreds of other Shiite families are camped in other buildings on the sprawling former army base known as Camp Rashid.
Jabir Munther, his two wives and nine children live in a dank room in a building that used to be the base hospital’s radiology department. Rugs are the only furnishings. Outside Mr. Munther’s open window is a pond of raw sewage.
He showed a visitor a creased leaflet signed by a Sunni insurgent group that warned Shiites to leave the Abu Ghraib area. A Sunni friend warned him that he would be killed the next day, so he fled, with the help of the network of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
Mr. Munther earns about $120 a month as a guard for a government ministry, he said, about half of what he needs to rent an apartment. He is grateful that he found the hospital, which has spotty electricity but usually reliable running water.
“It’s better than living in a tent,” he said.
Other Shiite refugees at Camp Rashid include former residents of Ramadi and Falluja in Anbar Province, centers of the Sunni insurgency. The former hospital is in the center of a bizarre moonscape of rubble, the result of contractors dumping debris on the hospital grounds. Children play all day amid the piles. They cannot go to school because no school is nearby. At other encampments, people say they have trouble enrolling their children because they have no permanent address.
On a recent morning, water trucks from Baghdad’s municipal government arrived at the base; residents had been without water for a week after a pipe ruptured during construction of a nearby electrical substation. Women in black chadors flocked to the vehicles to fill their plastic containers.
One man who identified himself only by his nickname, Abu Firas, 54, said he was a member of the camp’s unofficial city council. Before the government’s fall, he lived in southern Baghdad. Laws under Mr. Hussein’s rule protected him from eviction, he said, but after the invasion his landlord kicked him out.
Dozens of poor Shiite families have built ramshackle shelters out of rubble, corrugated tin and other materials on an empty stretch of land northeast of Sadr City, the Shiite district. They have no electricity. For water, they fill giant cisterns at a nearby water pipe.
Jassim Muhammad Marid, 65, said most residents of the shantytown were victims of the spiraling cost of living and the shortage of adequately paying jobs.
Many Iraqi families who do have housing are now living with three or even four generations under one roof. A dispute with his wife’s family in Kut, a southern city, drove Ahmed Mishaan Battah, 22, and his wife to the former air force club.
In October, they moved onto the grounds, paying the previous occupants of their new home, the second floor of a severely damaged building, $50. It has become increasingly common for rooms in squatter encampments to be bought and sold like regular real estate.
The Battahs got one room with walls, where they sleep, but the others are exposed. They cook meals on a small gas burner, tiptoeing around a precipice. As Iraq’s winter chill sets in, the Battahs, who are expecting their first child in a few months, are worried.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do when the rains come,” Mr. Battah said.
Nearly every family living here has some Dickensian tale of woe to share. In one of the main buildings, there is the family of a police officer killed in late fall. He took the job to try to scrape together the cash to move his wife, four children and niece out of this netherworld of trash and raw sewage. But a bomb in a booby-trapped body killed him.
Jameela Hashim, 48, who lives downstairs from them, has sold her family’s heater, refrigerator and stove to help make ends meet. Her husband suffers from mental illness from his time in the military during the Iran-Iraq war. The couple guarded a hotel after the invasion in exchange for a place to live. But they lost that job and wound up at the air force club.
In an arrangement that is at once tragic and comic, Muhammad Ubaid, a carpenter; his wife, Ms. Talib; and their five children have ensconced themselves on the stage of the club’s former theater. Like so many others, Mr. Ubaid struggled to find work after the American-led invasion. The family at first moved from their home in Dora to a less expensive neighborhood. But they soon lost that home, as well as Mr. Ubaid’s carpentry shop.
A friend suggested they try the theater, which was unoccupied. Mr. Ubaid built a makeshift shelter for his family on the stage. It includes a front window that looks out on the empty auditorium with no seats. After the invasion, looters ripped out every one in a matter of hours.
Mr. Ubaid still takes occasional furniture orders from customers. A fancy set of sofas was parked on stage on a recent afternoon. But the meager income he earns is not enough to move his family out. The Ubaids remain on the stage, living out their own drama.
Wisam A. Habeeb and Qais Mizher contributed reporting.