Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi squatters dig in to keep a roof over their heads

STAYING PUT Greedy landlords and crumbling lodgings have forced Baghdad residents to shelter in bombed-out government buildings

AFP , BAGHDAD

Thousands of homeless Iraqis squatting in former government buildings since the fall of former president Saddam Hussein's regime have dug into their new lodgings and are vowing not too move out.

Not only are they turning a deaf ear to marching orders by the US-led Provisional Coalition Authority and its hand-picked interim Iraqi Governing Council, but they are also protesting outside their doors.

"We are only defending our right to a home," said Hasna, 37, who has been deserted by her husband and left alone to care for five daughters.

"My husband fled to Iran because he was being hounded by the former regime for belonging to a banned Muslim Shiite party," Hasna said.

After the collapse of Saddam's government last April, she packed her meager belongings and moved the family from their one-room home in the impoverished Shiite neighborhood of Saddam City to the relative comfort of an abandoned prison.

"In my circumstances it is only fair that I should have the right to choose my home, even if it is only a prison cell," she said.

A veteran of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Ismail Hammadi, 45, was forced to move his wife and five children to a building once occupied by the former ruling Baath Party when his landlord decided to increase his rent two-fold.

Greedy landlords and cramped, crumbling lodgings have contributed to swell the number of homeless people in the Iraqi capital and force people like Hasna and the Hammadis to search for alternative solutions.

They have found them in the dozens of deserted army camps and former government buildings, which were devastated in the bombing of the Iraqi capital during last year's 20-day war.

Today they live in 83 public buildings scattered across Baghdad, in addition to hundreds of camps, barracks and offices which once belonged to Saddam's army and its security services, said Sheikh Ahmad Laaybi.

The cleric heads a self-styled "league of squatters" whose purpose is to defend the homeless against evacuation orders.

"I hope that the Governing Council will turn its attention to these people and solve their problems," said Laaibi, who helps the squatters organize frequent protests outside the headquarters of Baghdad's new rulers.

Ali Zahi Zubaidi warns that unless a solution is found the squatters "could be tempted to find another form of resistance" to make their voices heard.

Iraq's interim construction and housing minister Bayan Bakir Solagh blames the inadequate policies of the former regime for the plight of these people.

"Saddam Hussein did not build one single public housing unit since 1980," he said.

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