A weary Ali Hussein al-Naami, 60, sits in a waiting room at one of the offices of the Iraq Property Claims Commission, set up one year ago by the country’s former US administrator Paul Bremer to help Iraqis recover property confiscated by the ousted government.
It was common practice under the 35-year rule of Saddam’s Baath party for the state to strip political opponents and those sentenced to death or prison or deported of their assets, which were then sold at auction.
Parliament extended on Sunday the deadline for filing claims by two years after it expired on 30 June.
Al-Naami is struggling to appeal against a legal decision by the commission that he be evicted from his home of 22 years within a month.
He bought the house in the capital’s northern Ur neighbourhood in 1983 from the wife of Majid al-Samarrai, a former official hanged in 1979 on treason charges.
She had managed to get the house back from the person who bought it at auction after it was confiscated.
Now al-Samarrai’s grandson wants the house back on grounds his family was a Saddam victim.
“I have never seen a law as bad as this one, it goes against basic principals in our civil code,” says Mohammed al-Dulaimi, a former judge.
“I have never seen a law as bad as this one, it goes against basic principals in our civil code”
The law denies compensation to those who bought contested property at government auctions and is vague on what those who have to give back property would get in return, opening the door to contradictory interpretations by ruling judges.
The commission received 77,000 claims as of mid-June in which about 1000 final decisions were made with half the applications rejected.
Topping the list of those who received favourable rulings from the commission for properties as large as 3200 square metres in Baghdad are two cousins of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, according to records.
Claims are first reviewed by regional commissions made up of a judge and representatives of the real estate registry and state property offices.
Their decisions can then be appealed to a panel of five judges attached to the national commission which issues binding rulings.
Many in parliament have complained about the slow process and have called for the sacking of the commission’s chief accusing him of being a Baathist, the party which ruled under Saddam.
Commission chief Suhail Saleh, 76, a former Baghdad mayor, does not deny his Baathist background but says he fell out with the former government in 1991.
Allawi says Iraqi leaders have
“We receive many bogus claims from people who willingly sold to the previous government and now say they were victims,” he says.
The letter of the law may not be the overriding concern in the charged sectarian and ethnic climate of today’s Iraq where the newly empowered Shias and Kurds are looking to redress years of oppression under Saddam’s Sunni Arab-dominated rule.
But Saddam-era injustices were not the only ones Bremer was worried about.
According to an ex-judge close to the matter, Bremer had asked the Finance Ministry’s department of state property to compile a file of all property that belonged to former officials that was taken over by current government officials in the free-for-all grab that followed Saddam’s fall in April 2003.
The list included the home of former deputy premier Tariq Aziz taken over by Shia leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, entire blocks in Baghdad’s upscale Mansur district occupied by the Iraqi National Congress party, and several homes and buildings taken over by Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord party among others.
“We receive many bogus claims from people who willingly sold to the previous government and now say they were victims”
Haitham Fadel, the official who compiled the list, was gunned down in Baghdad in May 2004 with Ahmed Chalabi’s nephew, Salam, the former head of the tribunal set up to try Saddam, implicated in the crime. He subsequently fled Iraq.
The judge, who did not wish to be identified for fear of his life, said he was fired in the fall of 2004 after Allawi came to power in June of last year because he was investigating unlawful post-Saddam property grabs.
Allawi says his family’s assets including a graveyard in the central shrine city of Najaf were confiscated by Saddam but that he has applied through the commission to get them back.
“I did not use my powers as prime minister or as a member of the governing council to take it by force back,” he said in a recent interview while admitting that some political leaders did use their influence to acquire property illegally. He refused to name names.
Asked if these cases were being investigated, he says with a laugh: “I don’t know, but some definitely not.”