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Property commission sets to work amid widespread scepticism

Not everyone in Iraq is happy with the job Tahsin Hamid Yassin does. Following a series of death threats, he now carries a gun wherever he goes, and his heavily guarded office in the northern city of Kirkuk sits at the end of a street cordoned off to prevent car bomb attacks. A local administrator under the former regime and a Kurd, Yassin is now the head of a the Iraqi Property Claims Commission (IPCC) set up this April to arbitrate on one of the country's most sensitive issues - who owns Kirkuk. For centuries there have been a mix of Turkmen, Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian Christian communities there. This northern Iraqi city of 800,000 has the misfortune to sit on Iraq's largest oilfield. Kurds insisted it was theirs, but successive Baghdad governments set out to prove them wrong. The "Arabisation" process that followed reached its apogee under Saddam Hussein. In the decade after 1991 alone, according to a report published this year by Human Rights Watch, his government forced 120,000 Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians to leave the city and surrounding countryside. From 1968, Baghdad shipped in an estimated 300,000 Arabs, mainly Shi'ites from southern Iraq, to replace those evicted. Yassin gets his mandate from a sentence in the Temporary Administrative Laws passed this spring by the now disbanded Governing Council stating the need to "remedy the injustice" of Arabisation. Since opening its doors, his commission has received 6,000 claims - 2,500 in Kirkuk, the rest in the surrounding towns and villages. Yassin says 75 percent of the claimants are Kurds, 15 percent Turkoman and 10 percent Arabs. "In principle, our job is simple," he told IRIN in Kirkuk. "If a claimant can show us the deeds to a property they were evicted from after 1968, we have the power to take their case to a judge for arbitration." But the extremists are not the only ones sceptical of what Yassin is doing. Former Coalition administrator Paul Bremer may have approved the commission: it took heavy Kurdish pressure, just before he left in June, to persuade him to set aside a budget for it. The office is still understaffed today. Yassin may have two of the three judges he was promised, but only one of them has the team of assistants needed for work to start. The IPCC's efficiency is also hampered by ongoing debates over compensation. "It is now clear that we will be distinguishing between first-time and second-time buyers of confiscated property," Yassin explained. "Only the latter will have a right to compensation if a former owner makes a claim. The former will be considered to have taken over ownership in bad faith." The trouble, he added, was that no scale of compensation has been agreed in Baghdad. "I suspect that some of those in the ministry may be dragging their feet," he said. "That is a great pity. Unless we are able to solve a few cases quickly, people will never take us seriously, and that could have disastrous results." But the commission probably faces more serious challenges than Baghdad bureaucracy. Though a significant proportion of villagers evicted from their land will be able to show evidence of former ownership, the situation facing deportees from Kirkuk is more complicated. Many were deprived of their deeds and identity documents during deportation. Others were "permitted" to sell their properties at knock-down rates before leaving. Yet others, living in property belonging to their families for generations, never had deeds. Most importantly, the majority of victims of Arabisation campaigns were living in rented accommodation before eviction. In a survey conducted in May 2003 by the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), only 8 percent of 466 displaced households interviewed said they had property claims in Kirkuk. Scepticism of the commission's value can be found in high places. In an interview with IRIN, Kirkuk Governor Abdulrahman Mustafa said he believed it would not be able to solve the area's property problem. Asserting that the waves of Arabisation were the result of a decree in Baghdad, he argued that "the only thing that will work is a new decree annulling the first one". His words are a version of the positions of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties. Interviewed by Reuters this June, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani argued that "the solution is simple: the Arabs who were brought to Kirkuk should go back where they came from, with compensation from the Iraqi government. The same should happen to the Kurdish IDPs." These are words which go down well among the returnees - estimated by Kirkuk City Council to number 14,000 - now clustered in tents, disused military bases and a football stadium on Kirkuk's northern edge. Hardly a single family here used to own property in the city. It remains to be seen whether they will be satisfied with the limited mandate of Tahsin Hamid Yassin's struggling property commission.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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