Nawzet Shamdin August – Translated by Walaa Rayya
When the smoke of the liberation war of Mosul (the center of Nineveh province, 405 kilometers north of Baghdad) from the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) cleared in the summer of 2017, a race-like event arose among various groups some of them were armed, while others wielded power. They took advantage of the administrative and security vacuum to seize thousands of public and private properties in different ways, such as forging records or forcefully taking hold of them.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, which formed economic arms known as “economic offices”, dominated the ground in the city and its surroundings. They counted the lands, houses, and structures that ISIS had exploited during its control between June 2014 and July 2017 as war spoils, even though they knew that these properties originally belonged to the state, civilian citizens, or members of the Iraqi army and police, and IS had, in turn, seized them as spoils of war.
And it was not only seizing those properties by force of arms and influence, especially as some of their owners feared being accused of belonging to ISIS. It extended to the exploitation of vast agricultural lands through fronts (cooperative housing associations) that purchased and divided them, then sold them in violation of the law in many cases and at double rates.
Khalil Osman, a real estate broker from Mosul, says: “Everything was in their hands, and no one could object. The influential people took advantage of the housing crisis that occurred with the return of hundreds of thousands of displaced people to a city that had lost about 11,000 housing units due to the war. This led to a significant increase in residential land prices, which prompted low-income individuals to seek the help of cooperative associations.”
As agricultural land in Iraq is owned by the Ministry of Finance, i.e. the state, the action of these associations of dividing it into residential plots and distributing it for housing purposes is considered a crime.
The vast majority of Mosul’s encroachments on public or private properties occurred on its left side, with direct and indirect cooperation from employees in the real estate registration department, or what is popularly known as the “Tapu al-Zouhour”.
The Nineveh Criminal Court issued sentences against successive directors, several employees, and real estate brokers, on several charges, the most serious of which were causing the loss of 9,000 properties and forging documents and records of thousands of others. Some of the sentences totaled more than 100 years. However, the parties who benefited from these acts were not brought to justice.
Real estate corruption
The story of encroachment on state-owned properties, as well as on private property records that this investigation sheds light on was first brought up on March 21, 2019, after a tourist ferry carrying 200 passengers, mostly women and children, sank in the Tigris River in the center of Mosul, resulting in the drowning of 130 of them.
The popular anger over the incident led the Iraqi Parliament to issue a resolution to dismiss the governor, Nawfal Sultan al-Akoub, after a noisy investigative session in which he admitted that a militia in the Popular Mobilization Forces called ” Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq” had seized properties in Mosul, including a share in the tourist island area where the ferry accident occurred.
The investigations carried out by direct orders from the Cabinet led to the discovery of widespread corruption, and al-Akoub was personally accused of practicing it, including his involvement in embezzling more than 70 million dollars that were designated for rebuilding the city and supporting the displaced in the camps, he was also accused of serious dereliction of duty.
According to sources close to him, the dismissed governor’s loss of significant influence and lifting of his immunity prompted him to reveal some secrets about the activities and trading of militias like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. He felt disappointed after they abandoned him. Nevertheless, none of those militias were ever held accountable.
According to Abdul Karim Zinal, an independent politician, “the identity of the true ruler of Nineveh is known to the people, and al-Akoub could not have carried out the transgressions on his own without the support of certain parties, whether they were his partners or the ones who pushed him to do so and then abandoned him.”
On March 26, 2019, Deputy Chairman of the Federal Appeals Court of Nineveh, Judge Issa Fatah Issa, issued an arrest warrant against Nawfal al-Akoub based on a lawsuit filed against him in 2017 under case number 22/Q12/2017 and court code 3370. This means that the court did not issue its decision until after the ferry sinking disaster and the uproar it caused.
Because the governor’s location was unknown, the warrant for his arrest was not carried out until October 20, 2020. He was subsequently transported to Baghdad to face a series of trials in the Criminal Court for Combating Administrative Corruption, presided over by the Karkh Court of Appeals. Ultimately, he was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison. However, reliable judicial sources anticipate that the sentence may be increased to over twenty years, as there are other pending lawsuits against him.
Following years of judicial delays and parliamentary silence from Nineveh’s representatives, the sinking of the ferry and the subsequent dismissal of the governor has now presented an opportunity to uncover major corruption cases that were previously concealed, particularly those relating to public and private real estate.
Basma Basim, a member of parliament, has estimated that approximately 9,000 properties in Nineveh have been illegally obtained and their records have been tampered with, including some properties owned by the state. On the other hand, MP Abdulrahim Al-Shammari has highlighted numerous instances of forgery that took place after the liberation of Nineveh in the summer of 2017. He refrains from attributing blame to any specific group, but rather asserts that “everyone knows who is responsible, but their significant influence makes it impossible to hold them accountable”.
Former Iraqi parliamentarian and Minister of Defense, Khaled al-Obeidi, also pointed out that armed groups in Nineveh are involved in property forgery. He gave an example of a woman, without mentioning her name, and said that a convoy of armed vehicles (referring to militias) used to provide her with protection. After the liberation of Mosul, she entered the real estate registration office and changed whatever she wanted in the records.
According to the employees, she was at that time also serving as the chair of the board of directors for a housing association named “Umm al-Rabeein”. In late 2017, she allegedly falsified documents in the real estate registry, registering lands that belonged to deceased owners or the state under her association’s name. She then subdivided and sold them.
At the Mosul Investigation Court, we discovered that Najat Al Jubouri was apprehended on March 13th, 2018, under the authority of an arrest warrant with the number 4324. She was running her election campaign from the detention center until she was disqualified by the Independent High Electoral Commission following a request from her bloc.
Al-Jubouri was released after a short period following the intervention of leaders in the Popular Mobilization Forces, according to a member of the House of Representatives, she forged official papers related to the plot of land numbered 6/5422, District 37, Jdaida Al Mufti, and then signed a pledge to secure the land legally with her partners in preparation for its sale.
However, according to a source in the investigative court of Mosul, Judge Raed Hameed Al-Musleh, Deputy Chief of the Federal Appeal Court of Nineveh, issued an arrest warrant against her with the number 44346 on 13/10/2020.
After this arrest, seven additional arrest warrants were issued but not carried out, reportedly due to the intervention of a powerful entity that offered her protection. Instead, she decided to participate in the parliamentary elections held in October 2021, running as part of the mass bloc led by MP Ahmed Al-Jubouri from Salahuddin province, who is also known as “Abu Mazen”.
However, her path to the parliament was not easy. She was arrested by a security force on June 12, 2021, and in April 2022, the Second Criminal Court of Nineveh issued a series of prison sentences against her, totaling 22 years, which may increase due to pending or other lawsuits in which she is accused of forgery.
Real estate registration
According to Abdullah Ayoub Qasim, a lawyer specializing in real estate cases, from 2003 until the takeover of Mosul by ISIS in June 2014, armed groups targeted employees of the Real Estate Registration Office – on the left side, leading it to become the government agency that closed its doors the most.
He reported that “real estate mafias” with links to armed groups were using employees to manipulate property records. This included changing the ownership of properties belonging to Christians, Kurds, or Shabaks who were forcibly displaced during that period for sectarian or ethnic reasons, and then registering these properties in the names of individuals affiliated with those groups to sell them to secure their funding.
The lawyer indicates that the employees were completely forced to do so, as armed men killed two department directors, Derwaz Nidhir Mahmoud on October 28th, 2006, and Khawla Al-Sabaawi on February 16th, 2011. In addition, many employees were threatened, causing some to resign and others to flee the city or even the country out of fear for their safety.
He explains that Mosul, since mid-2003, despite the presence of US forces there until November 2011, as well as the intensive deployment of Iraqi forces (federal police, local police, and army), was a “hub for many armed jihadist factions such as Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, Jaish Mohammed, the Naqshbandi Army, and then the Islamic State that formed in 2006 and turned into the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’ in 2009, known by the abbreviation “ISIS”, which completely took over Mosul in the summer of 2014 and took control of government departments, including the Real Estate Registration department.”
The lawyer argues that what happened after the liberation of Mosul from ISIS in July 2017 was a continuation of what had happened before, “with only some changes in the titles”.
He explains, “Militias affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces took advantage of the security vacuum and the chaos that followed the war, which left great destruction and manipulated property records through their economic offices or those close to them in cooperation with employees of the real estate registration whether they were coerced or acting willingly”.
Zuhair Al-Jalby, the head of the “Umm al-Rabeein Attribution Committee” in Nineveh, a committee formed in May 2008 and carried out its work by mandate from the Prime Minister’s Office until June 2014, supports what the lawyer Abdullah Ayoub Qasim mentioned.
He says that cases of forgery in land registration records existed even before ISIS took control of Mosul in 2014 and that an auditing committee was established under the directive of the Prime Minister at that time, Nouri al-Maliki, back in 2012 to monitor the situation, he led alongside a member from the National Security Advisor and the commander of Nineveh operations.
The committee revealed the loss of 17 records with 12,000 property titles and the manipulation of six records described as “scratch,” meaning that there were “deletions” in their pages. He adds, “We sent reports about this to the Integrity Commission (an independent body under the supervision of the Council of Representatives) and the judiciary. This was back in 2012, and now we are in 2022, and it appears that the procedures have been delayed for too long.”
The measures that Al-Jalabi had been waiting for did not materialize until after the ferry incident in 2019. Farhan Hussein Taha Ahmed, the director of the property registration department in “Tapu al-Zouhour “, was the first government employee to be arrested when his office was raided on March 31, 2019. Other employees operating under its authority were also arrested for manipulating real estate records belonging to the state.
Just a few days later, on April 11, 2019, the Third Criminal Court of Nineveh, presided over by Judge Akram Khalaf Hussein, issued its decision in case No. 126 / J3 / 2018, sentencing the director of the property registration department to five years and one month in prison under Article 340 of the Iraqi Penal Code, which pertains to causing damage to public funds entrusted to the employee.
Then, a series of judicial verdicts were issued against him in 14 other lawsuits, and he was convicted in 11 of them, bringing the total sentences against him to 99 years by June 2022.
According to a source in the real estate registration office, we refrain from mentioning his name at his request, former Mosul governor, Zuhair Al-Araji, mediated the appointment of his cousin, named Mohammed Hussein Al-Araji, to become the director of the property registration office, replacing Farhan Hussein Taha Ahmed.
The source stated that militias affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces supported his appointment, and he, in turn, facilitated their operations to seize properties in Nineveh, as the former director did, and also manipulated the ownership of properties belonging to the state for their benefit or the benefit of individuals associated with them.
According to the same scenario in which his predecessor was arrested, a security force arrested Al-Arji in early December 2019 along with nine other employees. However, the real estate employee Mohammed Hussein Al-Arji was released after a reasonable period and after paying a considerable amount of money on bail, following the intervention of influential people in the Hashed (PMF).
A source at a Nineveh Criminal Court informed us that the court looked into 18 cases related to falsifying or manipulating real estate records in 2021. In 2022, the court looked into 34 cases.
According to the lists we obtained, sentences were given in numerous cases that were heard over a period of two years. On the 30th of August 2021, Muhammad Joumaa Hasan, the Deputy Director of Real Estate Registration on the left side, was sentenced to ten years in prison and a financial fine of seven million dinars (4795 dollars). An additional three years would be added to his sentence if he did not pay the fine. This ruling was issued because he received financial amounts to facilitate the transfer of real estate ownership from the name of a deceased person by fake proxy without the knowledge of their family, and registering it under the name of one of the fugitive defendants. In 2022, he was tried in eight other cases, bringing the total number of sentences issued against him to 56 years.
The other assistant to the real estate registration of the left-side director, named Marwa Salem Mutaab Khalil, was sentenced to four years of imprisonment according to the provisions of Article 340 of the Iraqi Penal Code. Similarly, verdicts were issued to imprison fifteen additional persons, some of whom had more than one case, according to lists we obtained, with the total sentences against each ranging between two and 106 years.
The issue extended beyond real estate registration employees and brokers to high-ranking officials. On January 19, 2022, the Integrity Commission issued arrest warrants for Zuhair Al-Araji, the former governor of Mosul and member of parliament, under Article 307 of the Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 of 1969, for allegedly accepting bribes to overlook the forgery of property documents and encroachment on state-owned properties.
A statement by the Integrity Commission explained that the term “encroachment on state-owned properties” means “sorting and dividing plots of land that belong to the state and selling them to citizens in violation of laws and regulations.”
After being released on bail, Al-Araji resigned from his position on February 8, 2022, and stated in a press conference held at the headquarters of the Mosul district governorate that “land mafias were stronger than the state and by force of arms they took what they wanted for years, even before 2014.”
He indirectly referred to Al-Qaeda and later ISIS, as well as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that took over the security file in Nineveh after it was liberated from ISIS in July 2017.
The parties benefiting are beyond the reach of accountability
At a time when legal proceedings were directed towards the real estate registration and its employees, as well as others in housing associations, without taking into account the beneficiaries who were exploiting and dealing with the properties in question in the lawsuits and making a lot of money, Thabet Al-Abbasi, the head of the Integrity Committee in the Iraqi Parliament, requested that the Supreme Judicial Council form a judicial committee to investigate many complaints that had been received by his committee regarding forgery and seizure of public and private properties in Nineveh, according to a letter issued on August 31, 2020, No. 16/396.
Based on that, the Iraqi Judiciary Council formed in early December 2020 a judicial committee to investigate complaints related to the forgery of real estate records in Nineveh. The committee consisted of three judges from the exclusionary courts of the Nineveh Federal Region.
The committee commenced its tasks in collaboration with the Integrity Commission by issuing several arrest warrants, most of which were directed toward various housing association heads, brokers, and employees in various departments, including the Municipality of Mosul. Additionally, more lawsuits were filed against real estate registration employees who are sentenced to imprisonment.
Once again, the measures taken lacked any accountability for parties benefiting from land forgery activities, such as economic offices affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, which were accused of these crimes according to officials and members of the Council of Representatives.
An employee in the Nineveh Governorate Office confirmed to us that those measures did not include political parties, economic offices affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, or political figures benefiting from the forgery operations that affected thousands of properties.
He said that the employees referred to the courts received “threats of liquidation against them and their families” if they provided any information leading to those beneficiaries. He also stated that the Nineveh Governorate Office refrained from getting involved in this case because of the power and influence held by the beneficiaries.
On January 1, 2021, the Integrity Commission made public that there were 8,585 state-owned properties seized in Nineveh, 2,888 of which are undergoing legal proceedings with efforts to reclaim them. As for the remaining 5,662 properties, no action has been taken yet (without providing reasons for this), with only 35 properties having been successfully retaken.
The area that has been recovered is about 2,000 dunams of land (a dunam, according to Iraqi legislation, is equivalent to 2,500 square meters), all of which were under the control of housing associations. About 70 employees, real estate brokers, managers, and members of those associations were arrested, most recently 11 association presidents and an employee representing the “Retirees Housing,” “Tigris Riverbanks,” “Commercial Families,” “Farmers Housing”, “Employees of the Nineveh Water Directorate Housing,” and “Employees of the General Company for Pharmaceutical Industries Housing”. They were arrested in April 2022 on charges of selling about 4,000 plots of land with an estimated value of 48 billion Iraqi dinars, or about 32 million US dollars.
Relatively few properties have been recovered from a large number of seized properties, and the existence of more than 5,660 properties for which no judicial action has been taken raises questions about the nature of these properties whose files are unspoken. As of August 2022, the official government and judicial sources we contacted have not provided any information about the nature of these properties.
For the past thirty years, Jasim Aaid, a former police officer, had been assigned numerous cases related to real estate. According to him, the 5,662 properties referenced in the statement released by the Integrity Commission have been unlawfully taken over by the Popular Mobilization Forces, tribal factions, personalities affiliated with them, or political figures, and no action has been taken in response.
Regarding the 2,888 properties that were mentioned in the statement as having ongoing legal proceedings, most of them are agricultural lands that have been unlawfully exploited, and some housing associations have reclassified them as residential properties.
Other associations forged documents related to lands belonging to the Municipality of Mosul and then sold them, therefore all the proceedings were related to the associations’ misconduct and did not implicate the armed forces.
Mosul Municipality confirmed through its director, Engineer Abdel Sattar Al-Habbo, what the officer had claimed. He stated that all the lands owned by housing associations within the fundamental design of Mosul city are illegal and encroach upon state-owned lands that the Municipality of Mosul had allocated for implementing public benefit projects. Those associations seized these lands through various means, including falsifying their documents.
Al-Habbo urged citizens not to purchase lands from housing associations, as many of their leaders are currently under arrest and legal action is being taken against others. This means that the lands they have disposed of will eventually return to the state, and thus, citizens who bought from those associations will lose the amounts they paid or will have to recover them through the judiciary.
We obtained the plot numbers belonging to the Municipality of Mosul and other government departments, which housing associations had been selling since 2017 after falsifying their records in the Directorate of Real Estate Registration – on the left side of the city. It turned out that there are 18 plots of varying sizes, ranging from two to 200 dunams, as indicated by a circular issued by the Municipality of Mosul.
Several aspects of real estate abuses
Adel Kamal, a researcher and specialized writer on Nineveh affairs, stated that there are various forms of property violations in Nineveh.
He referred to violations committed by political parties and individuals who allied with the US forces on April 10, 2003, following the downfall of the previous Iraqi regime and the capture of Baghdad one day earlier.
These forces have taken control of presidential palaces, Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party headquarters, military and security buildings, industrial and agricultural projects, as well as homes and parcels of land belonging to officials, employees, and high-ranking leaders of the collapsed regime.
He says, “It is impossible for the Integrity Commission or any other entity to claim back these properties because the parties that control them have decision-making authority in Baghdad as well as in the capital of the Kurdistan Region, Erbil, which also influences Mosul.”
In addition, he highlights that the period following 2003 saw a significant surge in the activity of extremist armed groups in Nineveh, with the most recent being ISIS. These groups took control of properties, particularly those owned by groups accused of disbelief, such as Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, and Shia Turkmen, whose ownership of those properties remained in question.
Those groups hindered the work of the registration department and their members manipulated property records, “forging them in cooperation with corrupt employees or those forced under threat, claiming ownership of thousands of properties and transferring them to other owners, then selling them for the benefit of their organizations.
Kamal points out that ISIS dealt with a large number of properties as if they belonged to them, and many citizens who intended to buy land or buildings would first ask if ISIS had any connection to them, “because many of them lost their lives trying to buy or sell properties that fell within the organization’s scope of interest.
He also points out that after the liberation of Mosul from ISIS in the summer of 2017, Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias spread throughout the city and seized properties that ISIS had used, manipulating the records and ownership of 9,000 properties, most of which were owned by the state, and sold to fund themselves. “All documents related to these properties are currently missing”.
Kamal emphasizes that some of the housing associations were used by the militias to gain financial gains by changing the ownership of state-owned properties, such as agricultural land, and selling them to citizens.
To confirm the information regarding the loss of 9000 properties, which was also previously mentioned by MP Basma Basim, we had to contact employees in the Directorate of Real Estate Registration. How could such a large number of properties disappear suddenly like this?
We were able to obtain property registration numbers that are completely missing, and even the general real estate registration in Baghdad does not have backup copies of them. These records are identified by the following numbers: 596, 621, 678, 743, 832, 843, 922, 940, 950, 959, 983, 990, 1050, 1097, 1250, 1275, 1278, 1347, and 1381.
And an official from one of the departments in the registration informed us that each record contains 200 pages, which means a total of 400 pages, with each page dedicated to a property. Losing these records, which number 19 records, means that there are 7600 properties without titles (missing), and the real estate registration in Mosul and even the general real estate registration in Baghdad knows nothing about them.
The records that have been forged or manipulated concerning properties have been seized due to ongoing investigations by the Integrity Commission and the judiciary. The record numbers in question are 597, 619, 698, 881, 1008, 1017, 1304, 1340, 1369, 1403, 1410, 1432, 1497, 1531, 1533, 1534, 1535, 1536, 1357, 1538, 1551, 1571, 1574, 1575, 1583, 1587, 1589, and 1591.
According to the official, more than 20,000 properties have had their records disappear or manipulated. He also stated that after reviewing the information held by citizens who have copies of their title deeds, it was found that many of these properties belong to Christian immigrants, deceased individuals, or the state.
He adds: “This means that the original owners’ failure to file lawsuits or pursue procedures to re-register their properties results in the loss of ownership. Many of these properties have become practically owned by others, and some have been sold multiple times.”
After the death of his mother in 2018, Saad Abdulaziz Mohsen (56 years old) reached an agreement with his siblings to sell their family home located in the al-Zouhour area on the left side of the city of Mosul and divide the money amongst themselves. However, upon visiting the Real Estate Registration Office – Tapu al-Zouhour, to complete the property registration process, he found out that the property record was missing.
He says that he went to the General Real Estate Registration Directorate in Baghdad and found out that the main record is also missing, and that the copy of the registration document he has, which bears the date of 1980, is the only evidence of the existence of the house, but he will not be able to dispose of it at all.
He and his siblings resorted to the court of first instance, where they learned that they would not be able to file any claim and that they had to wait for the real estate registration procedures, as the matter concerns thousands of other properties. He says with frustration: “The lawyer told me that investigations, auditing of properties, and organizing new records will take many years, and advised me to sell the house at a lower price than the estimated value and to sign a sales contract with the buyer, which will be authenticated by the court to ensure the rights of both parties until the property is legally registered in the real estate registration.
The house of H.J., a widow of a colonel in the army, situated in the Officers’ district on the left side of Mosul, was destroyed during the war of liberation. At the beginning of 2018, she began to repair her house, but an army officer, supported by a political figure who controlled an armed group, stopped her from completing the renovation. According to her, he took possession of her home by asserting that it belonged to him.
Also, when she attempted to obtain an up-to-date registration certificate, she discovered that her property was not recorded in the Real Estate Registration Directorate. As a result, she sought assistance from the courts and attempted to contact officials to recover her home.
Bahnam Ata Shamoon, a Christian who has been living abroad in the United States for nearly thirty years, discovered that the record for his home in the Darkazilla area on the left side of Mosul was registered under someone else’s name. He came to know that unknown individuals had forged his ownership and sold the house twice consecutively.
After multiple inquiries with the Real Estate Registration Directorate, he learned that a person he did not know and had never heard of before had filed a lawsuit against him in 2005 for ownership transfer before the court of first instance in Mosul. The lawsuit was based on the claim that the person had bought the house from him and paid the full amount, and had obtained an ownership judgment suspended under “Al-Noukoul an Al-Yameen” (a legal term that means the defendant’s refusal to take the legal oath included in the lawsuit filed against them).
From 2003 until 2014, property ownership transfer lawsuits before the court were common because the Real Estate Registration was permanently closed, and citizens had no choice but to resort to the court to confirm property ownership rights by certifying the sales and purchase contracts, with the regular property transfer procedures to be conducted later when the land registry is open.
Bahnam says, “The lawyer told me that it was enough for me to appear before the judge and inform him that I was not involved in the sale, to invalidate the property transfer decision. I was still thinking about it when I received a call from an unknown person threatening to kill me if I took any action, so I had no choice but to leave everything behind and leave the city and return to where I came from.”
Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Cardinal, mentioned in an article published on August 7, 2022, that forgers had taken over properties belonging to Christians, and called on the Iraqi government to do something about it.
Sako’s remarks came on the occasion of the eighth anniversary of ISIS’s expulsion of Christians from Mosul and their historic towns of Hamdaniya (Qaraqosh), Bartella, and Tel Kaif, following its takeover of Nineveh in June 2014.
Thabet Al-Abbasi, the head of the parliamentary integrity committee, raises the question of state-owned properties, pointing out that skilled forgers have manipulated the ownership of properties belonging to the state, registered them in their names, and sold them.
He indicated that forgers (without specifying their identity) tampered with the papers of those properties and that the retroactive effect sometimes extends to a hundred years, not only in the real estate registration in Mosul but also in its general real estate registration authority in Baghdad and the Ministry of Finance.
He confirmed that the committee he chairs has contracted real estate experts from outside the parliament to uncover the manipulation, which he described as professional, of some state-owned properties in Nineveh, and accused some housing associations of forging state property ownership with supporting parties from outside Nineveh.
Why housing associations?
Lawyer Mohamed Jbraeel Mamdouh was entrusted with lawsuits related to lands in the eastern Ninawa province in the city of Mosul, where housing associations collected their prices but did not deliver them to the buyers due to a legal dispute over them, as they are considered state-owned and their official documents were forged.
Mamduh remembers that the prices of residential land in the city of Mosul (Freehold) rose dramatically, reaching as high as 3.5 million and a half Iraqi dinars per square meter (equivalent to 2,400 thousand dollars). This increase prompted cooperative housing associations to buy agricultural land with areas of up to 200 dunams, subdivide it, and sell it to citizens at relatively low prices. Some plots of land measuring just 200 square meters were sold for as little as 25 million dinars, which is about 17,000 US dollars.
He confirmed that non-accountable militias have supported associations that have taken advantage of the situation and tampered with official documents to seize lands in Mosul of various sizes. These lands were originally owned by the municipality, and other government institutions, or were agricultural lands belonging to the Ministry of Finance. Changing their legal status is strictly prohibited by law.
According to lawyer Mohammad Jbraeel, the overwhelming majority of citizens who bought land plots from these associations are aware that there is a “legal loophole that affects what they have purchased.” He adds, “But they hope that the state will grant them ownership of these lands, as happened in the 1980s when the former Iraqi regime granted agricultural lands that citizens used for housing within the city of Mosul.”
The lawyer warns his clients, mostly, against buying from housing associations, especially lands located within the boundaries of the municipality of Mosul. This is because these lands are allocated for public projects, some of which have been approved for decades but were not implemented due to the 2003 war and the subsequent security deterioration until the liberation of Nineveh in 2017.
According to his knowledge of one of the methods of forgery carried out by housing associations for state-owned lands, he explains that there are lands that were owned by individuals in various parts of Mosul. The state acquired ownership of them before 2003, during the era of the former Iraqi regime, to implement projects such as roads, industrial complexes, and parks. The owners were compensated with substantial amounts of money, and those lands were leased.
However, after the liberation of Mosul in 2017, some associations, including Al-Hadbaa Cooperative Housing Association, Umm al-Rabeein Housing Association, and others, contacted the former owner of the leased land and returned the ownership to his name after manipulating the records and property registers by deleting any reference to the fact that the ownership belongs to the state. Then he sells it for a share to the association, which in turn cuts it and sells it for millions of dollars. All of this is “with the support and backing of influential political figures or armed entities”.
Due to security concerns, the attorney declined to reveal the identities of those entities or individuals. Similarly, numerous individuals, we reached out to in the course of this investigation also opted to keep their names or job titles confidential. Some individuals declined to participate despite our assurance that we would not publicize their identities or job titles.
Mohammed Al-Shammaa, a former head of the Sunni Waqf in Nineveh and a candidate in the 2021 Iraqi parliamentary elections, was taken aback by the fact that government service institutions, including water, sewage, electricity, and even the municipality, were providing services to lands distributed by housing associations in Mosul. He then suddenly declared that these lands belonged to the state and that their papers had been falsified by corrupt officials.
Al-Shammaa defended the citizens who bought those lands from the associations by saying: “Is it required of the citizen to be a legal expert while seeing entire neighborhoods being built, their roads paved, and supplied with water and electricity?” He also held the state responsible for the emergence of such problems, as it did not take into account the population explosion and did not distribute lands to citizens instead of housing associations.
The Real Estate Registration Office of the left side of the city – Tapu al-Zouhour, announced on April 9, 2022, that it will stop dealing with housing associations until the priority of lands is audited. The department has established a specific schedule for citizens to be received.
This caused a wave of widespread dissatisfaction among thousands of citizens who had bought residential land plots from housing associations that were not involved in forgery, and the lands that were distributed to them are located outside the city of Mosul. Despite this, they were included in the decision to suspend all dealings, which means they are unable to dispose of or utilize their lands.
The suspicions surrounding the operations of housing associations have also blocked a wide segment of citizens who were hoping to buy land from them after completely losing hope of buying land within the city of Mosul, not only because of the exaggerated prices according to some of them, but also because of the high fees imposed by the real estate registration for various procedures such as property transfer, sorting, and others.
According to real estate lawyer Mohannad Abdulrahman Ahmadi, there have been substantial revisions to property and land estimates for residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural properties, reaching “multiplied” values, as he puts it.
He goes on to explain that “fees and taxes for a 600 square meter residential plot of land in the Al-Mohandeseen area on the left side of Mosul city could amount to 200 million dinars,” which is approximately 137,000 US dollars, apart from the actual value of the property.
Imposing the current situation
However, not all housing associations are involved in property registration forgery issues. There are many housing associations for employees of government departments and institutions that have distributed lands outside Mosul city, especially in the Nineveh plains. Nevertheless, they also cannot use them for building or living or even access them due to the Popular Mobilization Forces militias, which have taken control of these lands and prevented their owners from exploiting them under the pretext of preventing demographic change.
One of the examples we have come across is the numbered land 182 in the 38th district of Ba’wiza, north of the city of Mosul. The Technical Education Association purchased it and changed its status from agricultural to residential after transactions that took more than a year, during which the association obtained approvals from 17 departments affiliated with ministries in Baghdad, such as Planning, Environment, Agriculture, Antiquities, Oil, Municipalities, Sewerage, and State Properties.
A professor at the technical institute, who was among the participants in the association, mentioned that he bought a piece of land from it in 2012. However, the Peshmerga forces (the Kurdistan Regional Guard) who controlled the Nineveh plain before 2014 did not allow him and other buyers to access it because the area was disputed between Kurdistan and Baghdad, under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution.
Even after the Peshmerga forces lost control of the Nineveh plain to ISIS between 2014 and 2016, and then the Iraqi security forces returned to the area, nothing changed. The Popular Mobilization Forces, particularly the 30th Brigade of the Shia paramilitary organization, Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi, took control of the area, and according to the university professor, prevented the buyers of the lands from the Technical Education Association from utilizing or disposing of them. This time, the pretext was to prevent demographic change, as the area has a majority Shiite population, and the problem remains unresolved.
J.H. has a land plot in the “Qaza Fakherah” district, located east of Mosul. He asserts that the Popular Mobilization Forces’ 30th Brigade has taken over the area, converting the land into gypsum quarries. Consequently, J.H. and numerous other residential landowners are unable to exploit their properties since they are barred from accessing them by the brigade’s members.
Before 2014, the price of residential land in that area was estimated at 12 million Iraqi dinars, which is equivalent to 8200 US dollars. It is logical to assume that those prices have doubled due to the people of Mosul’s interest in them. However, their owners are now forced to sell them for a quarter of their value, specifically to the residents of that area.
The same situation is happening in the areas of Jiliu Khan, Al-Falah Al-Thaniya, and Al-Shallalat. The 30th Brigade has put up a dirt barrier to separate these lands and send a clear message that outsiders are not allowed to build homes there, except for the locals.
The Governor of Nineveh, Najim al-Jubouri, stated that the Federal Court has issued a decision prohibiting citizens who are not from the Shabak or Christian communities in the Nineveh Plain from constructing residential buildings. However, according to information gathered from the Nineveh Plain area, al-Ḥashd has disregarded this decision, and the 30th Brigade has expanded its control by preventing citizens from owning or constructing residential or commercial buildings in areas within the original design of Mosul city, which are practically not part of the Nineveh Plain.
The brigade has taken control of two numbered plots, 16/2 and 19/2, located in District 48 in Al-Abbasiya. These plots were originally earmarked by the Mosul Municipality Employees Association for the construction of a residential complex named “Ziyuna”.
The association subdivided the land in the two properties into 820 residential plots and distributed them. The project was inaugurated in 2018 by the former director of Mosul Municipality, Radwan al-Shahwani, and other local officials. Many citizens had already built houses, which prompted others to buy those plots.
However, elements of the 30th Brigade in the Popular Mobilization Forces intervened and prevented any of them from building and expelled those who had already done so on the pretext that the complex is located in the Nineveh Plain, which the office of the Governor of Nineveh denied in letter No. 3617 issued on February 10, 2022, confirming that the two plots of land on which the complex was built belong to the district of Mosul and not to the Nineveh Plain.
The letter was attached to another one from the legal affairs of Nineveh province on February 28, 2022, with number 5277, addressed to the leaders of the Nineveh Operations Command, police, Popular Mobilization Directorate of Security, and National Security Directorate, and it gave exception to employees of Mosul Municipality and those working in the Ziyuna complex, as the association is official and its establishment was published in the Iraqi Official Gazette No. 5403 on August 20, 2018.
However, on the ground, the situation remained unchanged. Citizens who owned land in the Ziyuna complex mentioned that the 30th Brigade demanded large sums of money from the association’s management to allow those who had purchased the land to build on it, but later backed down and did not allow anyone to build or reside there.
The citizen R.M. confirms this. She is one of those who bought a piece of land within the Ziyuna complex on 3/1/2019, with several 2/860 and an area of 225 square meters, for an amount not exceeding ten million dinars. Later, she sold 100 square meters of it and kept 125 square meters on which she started constructing a building. However, it remained incomplete as militia members prevented her from continuing as she claims.
Employees of the association, as well as other landowners, informed her that they had negotiated with Brigade 30 to pay a financial amount (not specified) and that the association is considering deducting it from all participants. She said, “I would have accepted to pay whatever money was imposed on me because we do not expect anything from the government, which gave approvals to open the complex and failed to protect it and assert our rights.”
Then she added with frustration, “even that did not happen. Ironically, we are not even allowed to pay money to be granted permission to build on our land.”
The management of the Association of Members of the Municipality of Mosul, which supervises the Ziyuna complex, did not respond to any of our inquiries regarding what we were told.
When we asked representatives of the 30th Brigade within the Popular Mobilization Units about the prevention of hundreds of Sunni Arab land and property owners in the Nineveh Plain, not just the buyers of land in the Ziyuna complex, from managing or utilizing them for agriculture and other purposes, they provided a uniform response. They said that the brigade is concerned about a planned demographic change in the Shabak areas. Additionally, they stated that the brigade has received approvals from the Prime Minister’s office and the Federal Court to protect the Shabak minority in the Nineveh Plain. Therefore, they claim that preventing utilization and management is legal.
One of them said to us with some sharpness, “Where were you when the Shabak were being killed and kidnapped in Mosul by terrorists since 2003 until the invasion of their villages by ISIS in the Nineveh Plain? We want to protect ourselves and our children from a new invasion.”
In an attempt to resolve the Ziyuna residential complex case, there were protests, media movements, and legal actions taken by Mosul municipality employees and land buyers. They presented evidence they described as conclusive, proving that the 30th Brigade has no legal justification for its control and seizure of their lands.
In response to that movement, eight individuals associated with the brigade filed a lawsuit before the Primary Court in Bashiqa under case number 144/B/2021 against the chairman of the board of directors of the Mosul Housing Association for purchasing two agricultural land plots (2/16 and 2/19, district 48 Abbasia Al-Ula, registered in volume 222, May 2013, page 258 and the second registered in volume 230, May 2013, page 230) in the Ziyuna residential complex, to be divided and distributed among non-local citizens, leading to a demographic change in the area, which is predominantly populated by the Shabak minority.
The court of first instance rejected the lawsuit on December 30, 2021. The plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the Federal Court of Appeal, which issued its decision in number 48/S/2022 on February 6, 2022, affirming the initial judgment through its president Judge Amer Mar’i Al-Rubaie, which stated: “The plaintiffs, who are residents of Barima village, have no connection to the two properties, the merits of the case, and do not have authorization or power of attorney from the residents of Nineveh Plain. Furthermore, the land buyers in the Zayouna complex represent a diverse array of races and nationalities and are not affiliated with a particular political category or orientation that would make them a source of demographic change.”
Lawyer Ahmed Fathi describes the appeal decision as equitable, expecting the Court of Cassation to issue a final and not subject to appeal sentence, but he doubts the possibility that the decision can be implemented on the ground. He expresses his despair, saying: “The militias’ control of Mosul is a reality, and the court’s ruling will not be enforced”.
The areas controlled by the 30th Brigade in the Popular Mobilization extend from the northernmost region of Nineveh, from the far northwest of Nineveh, where the village of Al-Kubba, the Al-Rashidiyah neighborhood, and the vicinity of Tel Kaif district, passing through the Shallalat and Al-Fadiliyah areas, all the way to Bartella district and the vicinity of Al-Hamdaniya district (Qaraqosh) in the far east of Mosul.
Members of the brigade prevent any Sunni Arab landowners from accessing their properties, even though many of them have inherited them from their ancestors.
Elements affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces exploit those properties as gypsum quarries, for agriculture, or to build structures on them, and their owners are not even allowed to sell them at low prices as a last resort.
Samir Ezzdin Mahmoud, the owner of a vegetable cooling warehouse located in the northwestern part of Mosul, claims to have saved the names of employees working in the real estate registration department in Mosul, as well as the general department in Baghdad. He also says that he has established relationships with dozens of police officers and provincial council employees, due to his frequent visits to their offices since 2017 up until now.
According to his account, his warehouse was seized by ISIS in 2014. After ISIS was driven out of Mosul, people associated with the Popular Mobilization Forces took control of it. He is currently prohibited from approaching the warehouse. To worsen his situation, he could not locate the record that is supposed to confirm his ownership of the stolen property. He searched for it in both Mosul and the main office of the real estate registration department in Baghdad.
He says in despair: “I’ve been going around in circles for years, and the funny thing is that when I contacted someone who is exploiting my property and showed him a copy of the property registration certificate to prove my ownership, he accused me of forgery and threatened to report me to the authorities. I withdrew quietly because I had already been imprisoned on a forgery charge. There are no records in the real estate registration department that I can rely on, and no witnesses who are willing to risk themselves to confirm my ownership. Therefore, I have no choice but to remain silent.”
The investigation was conducted under the supervision of the NIRIJ Network, with support from NAWA Investigation Fund