Nawzat Shamdeen– Iraqi Journalist /June 2020
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) is enforcing a ban on purchasing and selling of Real Estate in the Nineveh plains and regions within Mosul city without their knowledge or prior approval.
This investigation covers the details of this domination and its implications …
On Tuesday, 26th of March 2019, professional raiders stormed the Land Registry Department in Mosul city. They quietly distributed themselves, to the filing, accounting, auditing and archives departments, disturbing the workflow there.
It is only minutes until a specialized team of Judicial investigation and National Security Agency officers followed them, searched the Real Estate department’s documents and ordered the restriction of the department’s director, Farhan Hussein Taha, then drove him in an armored vehicle to Al Tasfirat prison, in preparation for his trial on charges related to forgery.
According to the Integrity Commission, the former director of the Land Registry Department (Tabu), Farhan Hussein Taha, tampered with Real Estate documents of state lands, using forged seals with the help of employees from the same department. He was later sentenced to prison term of 5 years and one month after a speedy trial, in accordance with Article (340) of the Iraqi Penal Code related to the employee causing damage to public funds assigned to him.
What is interesting about the case and unlike similar cases in which senior lawyers are present to defend their clients, the man did not appoint someone to defend him, but he surrendered to the investigation process without even facing it, even with a media statement. The court proceeded, according to the Iraqi pleading law, by assigning a lawyer from the state who came to defend him in a fake manner only.
The appointed lawyer, who requested to stay anonymous, said: “I only saw my client’s file during the session in which the verdict against him was announced.”
The absence of a skilled lawyer to defend “Taha” raised many questions. He is the director of an important government department, and he receives a salary of more than two and a half million dinars (two thousand dollars) a month in addition to allowances. He is also accused of manipulating property worth up to forty million US dollars. According to those who knew him, he was a wealthy man who could afford to hire a whole team of lawyers.
“They warned me”
Taha’s case remained blocked from the media, and we were not allowed to view its papers, despite our repeated attempt to find out the story of the $ 40 million dollars and the properties associated with it. In addition, contacting the appointed lawyer to obtain additional information did not help.
The assigned attorney was scared when we met him. Although his name was mentioned in the case file, he stressed that his name is to be kept confidential in this investigation. All he said was repeating the same phrase: “I am not ready to lose my life for 30 thousand dinars (24 US dollars),” meaning, the amount that the court allocates to the appointed lawyers in lieu of fees. Usually, they are present only in pictures, without having any role or influence.
The “role of the PMF” was transformed from factions to confront terrorist organizations and control security in Nineveh, to factions with economic-political influence, thanks to their economic offices. This transformation and those Real Estate acquisitions and investments in the second largest Iraqi governorate “will give them the ability to finance themselves for years to come, even if government funding is cut off from them, thus preserving their political influence and imposing their will in an environment that is not their own”.
After a round of contacts with lawyers working in the Nineveh appeals courts, we reached the lawyer (AB), who was about to deputize for the former director of Real Estate registration, had it not been for a phone call he received from a person who said that he represents the economic office of the “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq faction,” which is one of the factions affiliated with the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces in Mosul.
This lawyer stated that the call was a threat in the form of request. They warned me not to represent Farhan Hussein Taha or share any information on his case. I learned later that many of my colleagues had received similar calls, so they refrained from pleading in his favor.
After assurances to him that his name will not be revealed, he said, “The Real Estate registry manager had signed (jointly with another employee) on several transactions related to state lands that were sold to people in exchange for small sums. After that, the process of dividing and selling them took place in large sums totaling $ 40 million.
He added, “The people who got the lands with low allowances and registration fees represent the economic offices of the Popular Mobilization factions in Nineveh, or they represent personalities close to them and deal with them, and the director of the Real Estate registry was involved with them. ”
Another lawyer, who asked to stay anonymous, who was familiar with the case file, said that the former land registry director “had no choice but to accept what was imposed on him. At the end, he paid the price alone without allowing anyone to defend him so that the names of those involved in the Real Estate corruption files would not appear.
The Real Estate registration building on the left side of Mosul known as “Tabu al-Zuhour” has a long story with theft, concealment of files or their forgery and manipulation, since the fall of the previous regime, from 2003 until today.
For 12 years, this building was targeted by armed groups and remained closed, and its doors were only opened for few weeks before 2014.
During those simple work periods, two of its managers were killed by unknown persons, employees were assassinated, others threatened, and some of them left the country, and thousands of Real Estate files and property documents were stolen.
As soon as ISIS took control of the city in mid-2014, it seized the “Real Estate empire”, so files and property deeds for about 25,000 properties, mostly belonging to displaced Christians and citizens wanted by the organization, who were mostly affiliated with the Iraqi police and army, local officials and parliamentarians.
“NIRIJ” investigative journalism network had revealed their numbers in detail in a previous investigation.
The manipulation and fraud in the “Tabu al-Zuhour” did not stop after the end of the governance of “ISIS” and the control of the “Popular Mobilization Forces” and the economic offices (or what is known as the economic committees) associated with it on the joints of the city.
Farhan Hussein Taha was imprisoned then released a few days later when the Popular Mobilization Forces intervened.
Another manager who replaced him was imprisoned, and other employees were investigated with for the disappearance or forgery of documents.
According to the representative for Nineveh Governorate, Basma Bassim (who called for the closure of the economic offices of the Popular Mobilization Forces), “there are more than 9,000 lost Real Estate files.”
As you enter the building, you can clearly see the confusion and complaining on the staff’s faces. One of them says: “Our staff of 55 people are currently dealing with 245 thousand Real Estate files and more than 70 thousand inactive judicial transfer decisions, with tens of thousands of citizens who want to obtain new Real Estate registration documents … It is a very heavy task, and with the presence of the militias that rule Mosul on the ground, the mission seems impossible.”
He added that the economic committees formed by the Shiite factions that practically controlled the security file in the city, most notably “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq”, “Saraya al-Khorasani”, “Shabeki Brigade 30”, “Babylon Brigade”, “Hezbollah Brigades”, and other militias that emerged after the liberation of Mosul in mid-2017 spread inside the city. “They exploited the Real Estate that was in the possession of“ ISIS ”, especially those that had not been returned to their original owners, and turned them into investments for its benefit or its headquarters and offices,” and that “this matter increased the state of chaos.”
He pointed out that the “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq faction” had an investment share in what is known as the tourist island in the forest area in central Mosul, in which a ferry carrying more than two hundred people sank on March 21, 2019, half of them died, most of them children and women.
He pointed out that this faction and others impose commissions on projects, otherwise they are forbidden to be granted licenses. It is one of the main reasons that kept investors out of Nineveh and Mosul market, as he puts it.
The deputy from Nineveh Governorate, Abd al-Rahim al-Shammari, stated that parliamentarians also have economic offices in Mosul, and they obtain projects and investment contracts for their personal interests. One of them received 100 billion dinars in exchange for providing vehicles for government departments. His name was not explicitly mentioned, but he said: “He is from a neighboring governorate and is called Al Zaeem (the leader).” It is a clear reference to a member of parliament, Ahmed Abdullah al-Jubouri, or known as Al Zaeem Abu Mazen.
MP Al-Shammari talked about another parliamentarian, who received 9 billion dinars for the “Bismayah” water project. Al-Shammari confirmed that he began collecting official documents incriminating them, along with others, and that he will submit the documents to the Integrity Department upon completion.
From “Surveyor Assistant” to “Manager”
Former director Farhan Hussein Taha, according to our sources, “fell victim to the conflict between the agencies and factions controlling Mosul.” As in early October 2019, a decision was issued by the Ministry of Finance to transfer him to the Minors’ Welfare Department. However, before the implementation of this decision, he was arrested by the National Security and taken to court.
To fill the administrative vacuum, the Ministry of Finance assigned another employee to take over his duties, but the latter “received direct threats of death if he practiced his work,” according to a colleague who worked with him. A few days later, a letter was received from the ministry to transfer him to the Real Estate Registration Department on the right side of Mosul.
It was only a few days before a new decision was issued appointing Muhammad Hussain al-Araji, who is from the city of Tal Afar and is close to the Popular Mobilization factions ,as Director of the Land Registry (Tabu) .
An employee in Tabu Al-Zuhour, with the rank of Division Director, says that the appointment decision was a shock to him and his colleagues, especially since Al-Araji does not have any administrative experience which is one of the prerequisites for taking over the Real Estate Registration Department, and his job description before his appointment was only “Surveyor Assistant” . He added, “This was under pressure from the PMF.”
He continued, “During the seven months in which Al-Araji was director of the department, PMF leaders seized large areas of land belonging to the state, which were divided up, sold or rented for their personal benefit.”
As happened with his predecessor Farhan Hussein Taha, and in an almost replicated manner, a force from the National Security Agency raided the land registry building on Thursday, November 14, 2019 and arrested Al-Araji, along with other employees.
Al-Araji was brought to trial and left behind dozens of questions, the most important of which were quickly answered, “How does the Popular Mobilization Forces appoint a person and then allow the security services to throw him in prison? Were they unable to protect their man? The answer was that Al-Araji was released by a judicial decision indicating insufficient evidence incriminating him.
The director of an administrative division in the Land Registry clarifies that the arrests of managers and employees are due to the multiplicity of security forces in Nineveh Governorate. He adds that “the National Security Agency (affiliated with the Ministry of Defense) does not dare to arrest leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces, so it resorts to arresting Tabu employees affiliated with it.”
Regarding the multiplicity of agencies, a policeman guarding the department’s building since its reopening near the Finance and Officers neighborhood explains how the National Security Agency established an office inside the building, under the pretext of security checks, followed by the Intelligence Department, while the Popular Mobilization Forces and its security services controlled all administrative divisions.
The policeman says that the three agencies were trying to impose their authority, sometimes clashing and others coordinating with each other, but they were all “A gateway to corruption.” He continues: “The citizen cannot obtain any official document from the Tabu unless he pays a bribe of up to 100 dollars to facilitate the granting of security approval for each transaction.”
He continues: “All this was before the intelligence agents clashed with members of the national security (both of them belong to the Ministry of Defense) and a deputy from Nineveh Governorate (Bashar al-Abbasi) intervened and escalated the matter to the authorities of the two sides, so the headquarters of the National Security Agency was moved outside the department.”
According to the director of the division in the Tabu, the Popular Mobilization Forces sacrificed Farhan Hussein Taha as a “Scapegoat” when he was arrested by members of the National Security Agency, and even prevented from hiring a lawyer to defend him. As for Al-Araji, the PMF holds on to him, and the evidence for this is that the court issued a decision to release him on a financial bail, despite the size of charges against him. “It is strange for a government employee to be released on bail, even though he is accused of selling lands valued at millions of dollars.”
The Invisible Partner
The lands whose records were tampered with in the city of Mosul are mostly located in the jurisdiction of Tabu al-Zuhour – the left side. During our investigation of its numbers, it became clear that the public property thereof are lands that were originally owned by citizens of Mosul, which the state acquired during the rule of Saddam Hussein, in return for financial compensation granted to them. The regime at that time allocated the lands to create projects for public benefit, such as schools and parks. However, due to the circumstances of the 1991 Kuwait war and the siege that followed until 2003, these projects were not implemented.
Of these lands, for example, plots 2, 8, and 9 in the southern province of Nineveh 39, plot 7/149 in district 38 in the northern Yarmajah region, and plot 7/149, and plot numbered 1/38 in district 41 in the northern region of Nineveh, which are of varying areas. There are also state plots of land in the Engineers neighborhood, specifically at the Talib Mosque towards the Fifth Bridge, as well as in the nearby residential Police neighborhood, and in the Air defense camp between the Yarmajah and Sumer districts on the eastern side.
In the past two years, these lands were returned to the original owners with the help of leaders in the “Popular Mobilization Forces”, and they were divided up, then sorted and sold, as private property.
Retired land surveyor, Abu Ziyad, spoke about the lands that had been forged in Mosul, based on his own experience of nearly 40 years. He says: “It is the property of the state… The original owners were compensated, but the Tabu employees concealed the original records and new documents were issued for the benefit of the original owners, and then they were sold as residential lands for amounts exceeding one million dollars per piece.
Abu Ziyad refers to the influence of the armed factions, saying: “I myself have surveyed and identified land in the Rashidiyya region, which is state land, and leaders from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq facilitated its sale.”
This corresponds to what was indicated by a high-ranking official in the right Real Estate registry of Mosul, who told us that the economic offices of the PMF (the most effective of which are those affiliated with the “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq faction”), immediately after the liberation of Mosul, carried out a complete inventory of state properties throughout Nineveh and Mosul in particular.
“They contacted all the inheritors of the Real Estates that the state acquired and did not register in the public records, and through them new transactions were issued, and the properties were sold.”
The employee stresses that the security and judicial investigations ended with presenting a “Scapegoats,” as happened with the former Tabu director, Farhan Hussein Taha, while the PMF factions are the invisible partner ,as he described, “they is no trace of fraud incriminating them, and no one dares to collide with them.”
“Member of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq”
During our investigation of fraud against public lands, we met Younes A, who showed us the ownership documents for the 149 plot of northern Yarmajah 38 district. This land was owned by the Younes family, but it was acquired by the state in 1988, and he was surprised that a housing association called “Umm al-Rabayeen” divided and sold it in 2012.
Younes tried to follow the path of his predecessors to obtain illegal rights, as he acknowledged that the land belonged to the state and that his father was compensated for it, but nevertheless he wanted to try his luck, perhaps to get something as others have done. He justified this by saying: “The state bought it cheaply, and today its price is much higher”.
It is noteworthy that when we followed the actions of the “Umm al-Rabayeen Association” mentioned by Younes, we found that its president Najat Hussein al-Jubouri was a candidate in the last parliamentary elections for the “National List”, and an arrest warrant was issued against her in March 2018 on charges of terrorism, according to Article 4-1 of the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 13 of 2005.
A source in the Special Investigation Court for Terrorism Cases said that “the president of the“ Umm al-Rabayeen ”association is accused of trading in Real Estate for the benefit of “ ISIS ”during its control over Mosul after 2014, and to clear her reputation, she was nominated in the parliamentary elections in the National List led by parliamentarian and former Minister of Agriculture Falah Al-Zaidan. She ran her election campaign while in Al-Tasfirat prison in Mosul, hoping that winning a parliamentary position would save her from the death penality. The spread of her propaganda images on the main streets of Mosul in the spring of 2018 sparked a wave of popular discontent and criticism of the election commission’s measures that allowed a candidate accused of terrorism to run in the elections.
The source continues that al-Jubouri “used to sell the residential property or the land itself to people, and when she was asked to return the money or settle the status of the Real Estate, she used to answer that the property belongs to“ Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq ” which is known for its security control in Mosul. This seemed realistic to many because of its usual appearance with a group of armed men.”.
Although it is not confirmed that she belongs to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, it is clear that she was benefiting from the cover of this faction to carry out Real Estate sales and purchases. This was confirmed by the former Minister of Defense and the current MP for Nineveh, Khaled al-Obeidi, who explained that a convoy of cars was accompanying her during her wandering between government departments and institutions, to facilitate procedures related to her trade in selling and renting Real Estate in Mosul. He stated that the Operations Command in Nineveh was aware of this, “but the influential forces (as he describes them, avoiding mentioning the name of the Popular Mobilization Forces) have control there.”
Theft and Manipulation
On the left side of Mosul, as well as within the scope of al-Zuhoor land registry, we observed a land estimated at 180 dunums in the industrial zone, which has been neutralized, and a “Lands belonging to the Al-Nour Housing Association” sign was raised there, but in reality, as a human rights officer in the legal division of the municipality of Mosul confirmed, the ownership of the land belongs to the state and it was originally intended for industrial projects and was leased through a “Land Development Lease” type of contract that extend for more than 20 years during which the investor is entitled to use the property, and then it reverts with the constructions to the custody of the state again.
However, “none of that happened here,” the employee asserts, although it is one of the privileged lands, as it is located on the main road extending between the industrial zone and the television cemetery from the side of the Victory neighborhood.
In the same area, we observed an entire residential neighborhood existing in a land of about 200 dunums belonging to the state separating the Karama neighborhood and the industrial zone. The municipality of Mosul used to rent it as yards for storing and selling reinforcement steel, noting that Mosul did not witness the sale of any state property under the law of sale and rent of state assets.
“What happens is that state land was seized and sold in broad daylight, whether to individuals or associations, after tampering with the documents and records in the Real Estate Registration Department,” says the employee of the Legal Division in the Mosul municipality.
“I will Lose My Life”
Private Real Estates whose documents were tampered with and sold in “Tabu al-Zuhour” have a different story from state Real Estate. According to brokers we interviewed, most of these properties belonged to housing associations or displaced Christians whose properties were seized by ISIS during its control of Mosul, and they were unable to return to it after the liberation of the city. In addition, part of it belongs to those accused of collaborating with ISIS, who were unable to protest due to their security pursuit.
Most of these properties are now occupied by the economic offices of the Popular Mobilization Forces, including properties that were sold for the benefit of the PMF or people associated with it.
The economic office of “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq” itself, located near the “Al Gondul Lahm Ba’jeen” restaurant on the left side of Mosul, put its hand on lands that belonged to the “Al-Hadba’ Real Estate” Cooperative Society, although it was distributed by ‘draw’ to citizens who paid for it and have been waiting for years to receive and use it, of whom three brothers are the heirs of Mrs. Najat N. who died about two years ago. They stated that they cannot prove their mother’s right to own their residential land (200 square meters) and transfer it to their liabilities, “because Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq prohibits any action related to our land or any other land within this area.”
Do Not Approach
The Popular Mobilization Forces took control of lands belonging to the “Municipal Employees Housing Association”, which was founded by a person called Ahmed Saadi Mahdi.
A source connected to discussions between Ahmed Saadi Mahdi and a leader in the “30th Brigade” or the Shabak Brigade of the Popular Mobilization Forces, revealed that Mahdi paid an amount of one billion and two hundred million Iraqi dinars (about one million dollars), in exchange for the PMF allowing him to fix the land (sorting, dividing ,marking roads, sidewalks, services, water pipes, and power lines). He continued, “What happened was that they received the money from him, and after a short period of time, they returned and prevented him from approaching the land or making any change in it.”.
And just one residential neighborhood away, specifically behind the al-Kindi facility (a military manufacturing facility during the era of the former Iraqi regime), an association called “The Industrial Family” divided an agricultural land in 2010 and sold it to citizens with promises to change its use permit to residential land and link it to services.
However, since the liberation of Mosul in mid-2017, the association has been procrastinating in carrying out its promises and demanding that each buyer should pay an amount of $ 4,000.
The reason, according to one of the owners of one of those bonds, is that “the PMF prohibits any change to Real Estate in the area except after paying sums of money, so the housing association returns to the buyers to collect the money, claiming that it is the expenses of providing services.”
Other lands that have faced the same fate are owned by Sunni Turkmen citizens in the north of the city, in the areas of Kubba, Shrikhan, Qarah Quinlo, East, West and Rashidiyya.
The people there say that the active factions, namely Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Saraya al-Khorasani and Katai’b Hezbollah al-Iraq, have confiscated agricultural lands and replaced the owners, and they have been taking the crops revenues from farmers for three years.
For weeks, we communicated with administrative officials in Mosul, and with officials in its municipalities, to inquire about the role of the economic offices of the PMF and the accuracy of the information related to their seizure of lands, but they all refused to respond.
Further, the PMF imposes a ban on selling and buying Real Estate in the Nineveh Plain and areas inside the city of Mosul without its knowledge and prior approval. The prohibition includes any modification to the property by its owner, such as restoration, expansion, or demolition. This extends over the entire Nineveh Plain, including Christian areas and Mosul, including neighborhoods like Al-Hadba in the north.
According to the researcher on minority affairs, Nimat Salah, this is similar to what the Peshmerga forces used to do in the disputed areas between the Kurdistan region and Nineveh under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. It did not allow any Arab person living in those areas (Sinjar, Tilkaif, Hamdaniyah, Sheikhan, Faida, and parts of the Nineveh Plain that have a Shiite Shabak majority) to make any change in their private property.
Nemat Salah says that the “30th Brigade” in the Nineveh Plains dealt in this way with non-Shabak residents in the Nineveh Plain, and Shiite militias who seized lands of Christian and Sunni citizens under various pretexts, warning of “the escalation of sectarian tension and its transformation into armed violence,” and recalling the practices of the Iraqi army in Mosul during the rule of Nuri al-Maliki, which paved the way for the entry of “ISIS”.
Nafeh Abdel Qader (a fake name), a citizen from the city of Mosul, tried his bad luck in selling a residential land he owned in the Nineveh Plain in early 2019. The sale and purchase process between the two parties was limited to a written contract outside the Real Estate registry. When the PMF knew about it, he was arrested.
Nafeh tells how he was driven, in a PMF car, in a state of dread and intense fear, to the headquarters of the Preventive Security Department of the PMF in the forest area (in the center of Mosul on the bank of the Tigris River, which is a tourist area). Before 2003, he said, the place where he was arrested was the guesthouse of Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, the half-brother of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (who died in detention in 2015 following a heart attack).
Nafeh was threatened there. He confirmed that they were going to fabricate for him “the ready-made accusation”, he refers to the terrorism charge stipulated in Article 4 of the Terrorism Law 13 of 2005. He continues: “Under pressure, I gave up the idea of selling the property, and my family resorted to mediation in order to get my release and I paid ten thousand dollars.”
A political activist from Nineveh, commenting on the “transformation of the PMF role” from factions to confront terrorist organizations and control security in Nineveh to factions with economic-political influence, thanks to their economic offices. This transformation and those Real Estate acquisitions and investments in the second largest Iraqi province “will give them the ability to finance themselves for years to come, even if government funding is cut off from them, thus preserving their political influence and imposing their will in an environment that is not their own.
This investigation was carried out with the participation of the Nineveh Investigative Team and with the support of the “NIRIG” Investigative Journalism Network and under the supervision of Kami Al-Melhem.