Ninawa state helpless as squatters build illegal towns on it's property

Illegal shanty towns occupy miles of state land in Ninawa. Squatters are endangering construction projects, archaeological digs, federal relations and themselves. Bulldozers and the army haven’t worked, now the state plans to pay them to shift.

Squatting is becoming a major issue in the Ninawa province, in northern Iraq. Whole towns have risen both outside and within the city of Mosul, and mostly on government-owned land.

The illegitimate towns are filled with homes made of mud and tin cans, unconnected to municipal sanitation, water or power. The illegal housing is putting major reconstruction projects as well as important archaeological artefacts at risk and causing conflict between state and federal authorities.

Additionally squatters have started renting, buying and selling their squatted property. They have also started demanding the same rights as legitimate property owners, including financial compensation when the local government tries to evict them and claim the land back.

As yet the Ninawa state government has been unable to assess exactly how much of its land has been occupied by squatters. They say this is because of a lack of specialized technicians, because ministries involved have not come back with relevant information and because the unstable security situation in Mosul –the city is still considered one of the most violent and dangerous in Iraq - makes gathering this kind of information very difficult.

Nonetheless currently state officials estimate that around 15,000 households, comprised of around 75,000 individuals, are living in squatted properties.

Many of these families came to the area after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime. According to Hassan Mahmoud, a judge and the second deputy state governor, squatting became even more common after 2003 because of the temporary absence of a national or state authority.

Over the years since then, internal refugees have continued to arrive in Mosul for a variety of different reasons.

Mahmoud said that around 10,000 of the squatters originate from the Shikhan and Talkeef districts, north of Mosul. Most of these are members of the Hadid tribe, an Arab tribe expelled from their homes by Kurdish military due to the fact that the land they lived on was subject to territorial disputes between the federal Iraqi government and the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. The state of Ninawa borders on Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own military force.

“South of Mosul city, we also have problems with squatters,” Mahmoud told NIQASH. “Most of the people living there have either fled sectarian violence in other Iraqi cities or they are villagers who left their towns and villages due to sand storms.”

Lack of irrigation and increased desertification has seen dozens of villages in Ninawa state abandoned as former cattle farmers found themselves unable to continue farming.

Squatters have also occupied the banks of the Tigris River which divides modern Mosul in two. Over the past few years the river has been shrinking, due both to climate change and less rainfall and to the fact that neighbouring countries are building more dams and hydropower plants which prevent traditional water sources from reaching the Tigris. As a result, squatters have been able to build on unclaimed land on the river’s banks.

Meanwhile Akram Nafie, an independent researcher into Iraqi antiquities, noted that squatters were also occupying land that was originally marked out for archaeological digs. Some of those sites had not yet been fully explored but due to illegal building were now surrounded, or covered, by housing.

Squatters also lived on many of the 60,000 square hectares of unused land owned by Ministry of Defence in Ninawa. One of the most controversial of these sites was a rectangular piece of land, measuring around five square hectares, known as the Quds camp. The area, formerly the Iraqi army Quds division’s base, was mostly occupied by members of the displaced Hadid tribe. Locals suggested that some of the squatters were motivated to build even more homes here after they became aware that the land was designated as the site of an IQD75 billion (US$64 million) sports facility. The squatters, who have been known to rent out the houses they build, are hoping that they will be compensated financially, if they are eventually evicted to make way for the stadium.

There’s no doubt that Ninawa’s squatters are enterprising. Mosul’s mayor Hussein Ali Hajim has noted that squatters are building kiosks on state-owned land, and opening illegal businesses such as restaurants or fast food outlets, right next door to government buildings.

And engineer Saleh Saffo, chief of electricity distribution for northern Ninawa, said that thousands of squatters (and other householders) had connected their buildings to the power grid near government institutions not subject to scheduled power cuts, such as hospitals and water plants.

Ninawa’s provincial council has been trying to address the issue, not least because of the drain on the state’s own resources. There are also an estimated 20 projects planned by the Ninawa Investment Commission, the body charged with facilitating and approving business investment in the state, that are endangered because no state land is available to them.

Eviction notices have been sent to squatters in areas like the Quds camp. And the council also passed a resolution that would allow for financial compensation – around IQD1 million (US$854) - to those who agreed to leave government property.

Some Ninawa council members, fearing that squatters will take advantage of the council’s generosity, objected to the resolution. Legal advisers were similarly opposed, saying that any payouts were a violation of the law as the squatters were being compensated for leaving property that they had never owned in the first place.

The legal adviser to Ninawa’s state governor, Faris al-Bakoa, added that one of the biggest problems was the fact that the squatters had also been dabbling in real estate with the land they occupied, buying, selling and renting as though it was legally theirs and in effect, legitimizing their occupation. “And they are being rewarded instead of punished,” he argued.

However popular Iraqi MP, Zuhair al-Araji of Mosul, justified the potential payouts, explaining that rather than being considered compensation for loss of property, the money could be seen as a form of social welfare, aiding squatters to find another home to rent or cover the costs of moving house.

Additionally, the head of Mosul’s provincial engineering department, Imad Jamil Abbas, said that the state has also started construction work on 4,000 low-cost apartments, destined to house poorer families. The idea is to have squatters living on government land move into the new apartment blocks.

So far though, most of the efforts to move the squatters from Ninawa’s mud-and-tin-can towns have failed.

Opposition groups have also voiced their support for the squatters. General demonstrations against the state government were organized on Feb. 25 and at these, and subsequent protests, pro-squatter slogans were evident.

At one stage a division of the Iraqi army, which is well known in Mosul for occasional actions independent of any federal or state authority orders, stepped in to prevent the squatters being evicted. In light of that troop leader’s past criticisms of the state authority and conflicts between the two parties as to who has authority over which areas of Mosul, observers suspect the army stepped in to demonstrate their authority over the neighbourhood – rather than it being an expression of any real sympathy for the squatters’ plight.

Over the past week, the situation has developed further. Under orders from the Mosul council, bulldozers were sent to demolish squatters’ housing inside the city. But rather than indicating how things would progress between the state and the squatters in the future, the scenes simply raised more questions among sceptical observers. While some squatters are dealt with harshly, with bulldozers and demolished homes, others are being treated more leniently, with offers of financial compensation and alternative housing.

Why? those looking on asked. Was this in the public interests or did politics play a role? As yet, neither the state nor the squatters seem to know the answer.