Iraqi Real Estate in Dispute; Property Seized by Saddam, Lack of Titles Spawn Confusion

Article excerpt

Byline: Philip Smucker, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BAGHDAD - What to do with the spoils of war? That is the question troubling Kamel Abed, who sells fresh apples, oranges and bananas outside the gates of a vast palm-oil plantation that, until early this year, was the sole possession of Saddam Hussein's daughter Hala.

Its palatial white marble floors are now occupied by America's finest. Mr. Abed dreams of owning a small plot of his own while watching U.S. helicopters and Humvees patrol the plantation in their hunt for insurgents, some of whom remain loyal to the deposed dictator.

But, with four children and still living with his own father, Mr. Abed, 47, has a plan he would like everyone to consider: "Divide the land up in small plots for poor Iraqis like myself who were disenfranchised by the former regime."

His is not an idea likely to be realized anytime soon.

Uncertainty over what is to be done with the Hussein family's vast real estate holdings - which extend hundreds of miles up and down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers north and south of the capital - underlies a looming debate over how to rewrite Iraq's antiquated property laws.

The country's U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which still lacks a democratic mandate to change the property laws, has restricted itself to surveying the ex-dictator's family tracts and trying to keep squatters and thieves at bay. Baghdad's housing authority is trying to learn how many deeds were destroyed in the looting and fires that followed the U.S. invasion. Meanwhile, attacks on American forces and private security firms have frightened away nearly all would-be land buyers.

Now, a growing number of American and foreign economic observers are warning that Iraq needs a "revolution" in property rights. They recommend an overhaul of the country's economic laws and an accounting for the black market that holds a key to Iraq's rapid economic growth.

"Without titled property of their own, or the opportunity to leverage capital that comes with property, poor and midsize entrepreneurs will stand on the sidelines and watch old Ba'athist elites [as well as Americans] prosper," said Frances B. Johnson, formerly with the U.S. Agency for International Development and now co-chairman of the International Property Rights Working Group in Washington, which is lobbying for more U.S. help in rewriting Iraqi property laws.

Mrs. Johnson insists that without a revamping of property laws, "this corps of unhappy Iraqis will be prey to the call of some evil, ambitious new leader - one who promises either spiritual rewards for suicide bombers or material rewards for a compliant constituency."

Missing the chance to create a new property code could spell an end to the Bush administration's goal of showing Iraqis that they can aspire to owning their own homes and businesses, say other economists.

Three out of four Iraqis do not hold formal title to their assets, according to a preliminary surveys by Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto, author of "The Mystery of Capital" and whose ideas are helping revamp economies from South America to the South Pacific.

Mr. De Soto, whose thinking is in vogue among economic conservatives as well as liberals, says poor inhabitants in the Third World and former communist countries - five-sixths of humanity - possess real property but lack deeds to it. …