The raiders handled their targets with agile professionality within the Land Registration Department at the left side of Mosul city. They distributed themselves without notice, to filing, archiving, accounting and auditing departments and obstructed the workflow there on Tuesday, 26th of March, 2019.
After a few minutes, they were followed by a specialized team of judicial investigation and National Security Service members. They searched the documents of the Real Estate Department and ordered that the director of the department, Farhan Hussein Taha, be chained then dragged to an armored vehicle and moved to ‘Tasfirat Diwaniya Prison’ in preparation for his trial on counts of forgery.
According to the Commission of Integrity, Farhan Hussein Taha, the former director of the Tapu Department, tampered with real estate documents of lands belonging to the state, using counterfeit seals, aided by employees from the same department. Subsequently, he was sentenced to a five years’ and one month imprisonment after a speedy trial, under Article (340) of the Iraqi Penal Code, relating to causing damage to public funds entrusted to him.
What’s interesting about the case, and unlike similar cases in which senior lawyers attend to defend their clients, is that he did not hire a lawyer to defend him. Instead, he surrendered during the course of the investigation without trying to face the charges, not even by making a statement for the media. According to Iraqi Procedure Law, the court appointed a state lawyer to defend him only as a formality.
“I did not check my client’s file except during the verdict hearing session,” the state-appointed lawyer, who asked not to be named, told Daraj.
The absence of a competent lawyer to defend “Taha” raised many questions. He is the director of an important governmental department and he earns more than two and a half million IQD (2,000 USD) per month aside from the provisions. He was also originally accused of tampering with property worth up to forty million US dollars. According to those who know him, he is an affluent man who is capable of paying the fees that would appoint an entire team of lawyers.
“They Warned Me”
Taha’s case remained hidden from the media. We were not allowed to check its papers, in spite of our repeated attempts, to know about the story of the 40 million USD and the associated properties. Even contacting the appointed lawyer to obtain extra information was completely useless.
The state-appointed lawyer was afraid when we met him.Although his name was mentioned in the case file, he stressed that his name should not be mentioned in this investigation. All he said was revolving around the same statement: “I’m not willing to lose my life for 30,000 IQD ( 24 USD)” meaning the amount of money allocated by the court to the assigned lawyers as an allowance of their fees. Usually, their attendance is ineffective and they neither have an influence nor a role.
After contacting lawyers working in Nineveh courts of appeal, we reached the lawyer (A.B.) who was about to defend the former Land Registration Department director, had it not been for a phone call he received from a person who told him that he represented the Economic Bureau of the “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq” faction; one of the Shia Popular Mobilization factions in Mosul.
This lawyer stated that the phone call’s content was all about a threat in the form of a request. “They warned me of representing Farhan Hussein Taha or sharing any information related to his case. I knew, later, that many of my colleagues received similar phone calls and refrained from defending him.”
After insisting that we don’t mention his name either, he explained: “The Land Registration Department director, in conjunction with another employee, had signed several transactions related to lands belonging to the state that were let to be owned by people, for ridiculously small amounts of money. Afterwards, those lands were cut and sold in return for large amounts of money, totaling 40 million USD.”
“Those who obtained the lands, for low registration fees and allowances, either represent the Economic Bureaux of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Nineveh or figures close to them who deal with such bureaux, and the Land Registration Department director was involved with them,” He added.
Another lawyer who asked not to be named, and was familiar with the case file, said that “The Tapu Department’s director had no choice but to accept what was imposed on him. He, eventually, paid the bill alone and they did not allow anyone to defend him, in order to keep the names of those involved in the files of real estate corruption hidden.”
A Heavy Task
Since the fall of the former regime in 2003 until today, the real estate registration building on the left side of Mosul known as the “Tabu al-Zuhur” has a proven record of theft, hiding, forging or tampering with files.
For 12 months, this building was targeted by armed groups and remained closed until a few weeks before 2014.
During these few working periods, two of its managers were killed by unknown assailants, employees were assassinated, others were threatened and some were forced to leave the country. Thousands of real estate files and title deeds were stolen from inside the building.
After ISIS took control of the city in mid-2014, it seized the “real estate empire,” resulting in the disappearance of real estate files and title deeds for 25,000 properties, most of which belong to displaced Christians or citizens wanted by the organization, most of them belonging to the police, the army, or had been local officials and parliamentarians. The NIRIJ Network for Investigative Journalism had previously published an investigative report detailing the numbers.
Manipulation and forgery operations in the “Tabu al-Zuhur” building never stopped even after the end of ISIS’s authority when the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and their economic offices (or so-called economic committees) took control of the city’s joints.
In the last two years the two former managers were followed by Farhan Hussein Taha who went to jail and the other manager who was appointed to his place and was imprisoned then released a few days later when the Popular Mobilization Forces intervened along with other employees who were investigated for the disappearance or forgery of documents.
“There are more than 9,000 real estate files missing,” said Basma Basim, parliament member for Nineveh Governorate, (one of those demanding the closure of the economic offices of the Popular Mobilization).
Whoever enters the building notices the confusion and grumbling on the faces of the employees. One of them expressed: “Our employee list includes no more than 55 employees who are currently supposed to deal with 245 thousand real estate files and more than 70 thousand unexecuted judicial decisions of property transfer, along with tens of thousands of citizens who want to obtain new extracts of real estate records… it is a very challenging task. Also, with the presence of the militias actually controlling Mosul, the task becomes impossible. ”
The employee added that the Shiite factions that effectively controlled the security situation in the city, most notably “Asaib Ahl al-Haq”, “Saraya al-Khorasani”, “30th Brigade or the Shabak Militia″, “ Babylon Brigade”, “ Kata’ib Hezbollah or Hezbollah Brigades ”and other militias which emerged and spread after the liberation of Mosul mid-2017, “have formed economic committees through which they seized the properties that were in possession of“ ISIS ”, especially those whose original owners did not return to, and turned them into investments in their favor or headquarters,” he added. “This matter helped to compound the messy situation.”
He pointed out that the “Asaib Ahl al-Haq” faction has an investment share in the Mosul Tourist Island located in the forest area in the central area in Mosul, in which a ferry carrying more than two hundred people sank on March 21, 2019, half of them, mostly children and women, died.
He also highlighted that this faction and others impose a certain percentage of projects in exchange for issuing licenses to them. This , according to him, is one of the main reasons that kept investors away from the promising Nineveh and Mosul market.
The parliament member for the Nineveh Governorate, Abdul Rahim Al-Shammari, stated that there are also parliamentarians who have economic offices in Mosul, through which they obtain project contracts and investments for their own personal interests. One of them got (100) billion dinars in exchange for providing mechanisms for government agencies. Although he did not explicitly mention his name, and only said: “He is from a neighboring governorate and is called the leader.” However, his words are a clear reference to parliament member Ahmed Abdullah al-Jubouri, who is known as leader Abu Mazen.
Al-Shammari has also indicated that another parliamentarian received 9 billion dinars in exchange for setting up a water project in the Al-Shamiya area. He confirmed that he is about to collect official documents condemning them and others and upon completion he will submit them to the Commission of Integrity.
From “Assistant Surveyor” to “Manager”
According to our sources, the formal manager Farhan Hussein Taha “has fallen victim to the struggle of the agencies and the factions controlling Mosul”. A decision was issued by the Ministry of Finance to transfer him to the Minors Welfare Department in early October 2019. However, before the implementation of the decision he was arrested by National Security and taken to court.
To fill the administration vacancy, the Ministry of Finance commissioned another employee to take over Farhan’s duties. However, that employee “received direct death threats if he practiced his work”, according to one of his colleagues. Few days later, a letter came from the ministry to transfer him to the Real Estate Registration Department on the right side of Mosul.
A few days later, the new decision was issued to appoint Muhammad Hussein al-A’raji, who comes from Tal Afar and is close to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), as the director of the Land Registry.
A Division Director at “al-Zohor” Land Registry said that the appointment decision was a shock to him and his colleagues, especially that al-A’raji does not have any administrative experience, which is one of the requirements for taking over the administration of the Real Estate Registration Department. His job description before the appointment decision was “Assistant Surveyor”. “This decision was forced by the Popular Mobilization Forces” he added.
“During the seven months when al-A’raji was director of the department,” he added, “leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces acquired large areas of land that were owned by the state. Those lands were divided, sold or rented for the leaders’ personal benefit.
As with his predecessor Farhan Hussein Taha and in an almost carbon copy scene, a force from the National Security raided the Land Registry building on Thursday, November 14, 2019 and arrested al-A’raji and other employees.
The man was taken to trial, leaving behind dozens of questions, the most important of which were quickly answered. “Why would the PMF appoint a person then allow the security services to take him to jail? And was the PMF unable to protect its man?” The answer was in the release of al-A’raji by a court ruling that indicated that there was insufficient evidence to condemn him.
Multiplicity of Agencies
The director of an administrative division in the Land Registry explains that the arrests of managers and employees are caused by the multiplicity of the security forces in Nineveh Governorate. In addition, “the National Security Service (affiliated to the Ministry of Defense) does not dare to arrest leaders of the PMF, so it resorts to the arrest of the employees of the Land Registry who belong to the PMF.”
On the multiplicity of agencies, a policeman guarding the building of the department since its reopening near the neighborhoods of al-Maleya and al-Dhobat, explained how the National Security Service opened an office inside the building on the pretext of the security audit, then the intelligence department joined it and opened an office there, while the hands of the Popular Mobilization Forces and its security services extended to all administrative divisions.
The policeman said that the three agencies were trying to impose their authority, they collided at times and coordinated at other times, but they were all “gates to corruption”. He continued: “The citizen cannot obtain any official paper from the Land Registry except by passing through it, and paying bribes, up to a hundred dollars, to facilitate granting security approval for every transaction.”
He continued: “That was before the elements of the Intelligence Services clashed with elements of the National Security (both of whom are affiliated with the Ministry of Defense), and before the deputy of the Nineveh Governorate (Bashar al-Abbasi) intervened and referred the matter to the authorities of the two sides, so the office of the National Security Agency was moved out of the department.”
From the point of view of the director of the Land Registry, the PMF sacrificed Farhan Hussein Taha as a “scapegoat” when members of the National Security arrested him, they even prevented him from appointing a lawyer to defend him. As for al-A’raji, the PMF are still holding on to him and this is evidenced by the fact that the court issued a decision to release him on bail, despite the charge against him. “It is strange that a government employee was released on bail, despite being accused of selling lands valued at millions of dollars.”
The Unseen Partner
The properties whose records were tampered with in Mosul are mostly located in the jurisdiction of the Al-Zuhur – left side Land Registry. During our investigation of its numbers, it became clear that the public properties among them are lands that were originally owned by citizens of Mosul, which were taken over by the state during the rule of Saddam Hussein, in exchange for financial compensation granted to the citizens. The system then allocated the lands to create projects of public benefit, such as schools, parks, and other establishments. However, due to the circumstances of the 1991 Kuwait war and the blockade that followed until 2003, these projects were not implemented.
These lands include for example plots 2, 8 and 9 in the southern province of Nineveh 39, and the plot 149/7 in the province of 38 in the northern area of Yarmjah and the plot 149/7 and the plot numbered 38/1 in the province of 41 in the northern Nineveh region, which are of varying sizes. There are also plots of state-owned land in the upscale Mohandessin neighborhood, particularly at the Al-Talib Mosque towards the fifth bridge, as well as in the adjacent residential neighborhood of Police, and in the air defense camp between the Yarmjah and Sumer areas on the eastern side.
In the past two years, those lands have been returned to the old owners with the help of leaders of the Popular Mobilization, and have been divided, then sorted and sold, as private property.
Retired land surveyor Abu-Ziyad spoke about the lands whose ownership had been forged in Mosul based on the experience of nearly four decades of cultivating land. He said, “They belong to the state … The old owners have seized their full values. But the employees in the Land Registry concealed the original papers and extracted new restrictions for the benefit of the old owners. Then the lands were sold as residential records in amounts amounting to one million dollars per piece.”
Abu-Ziyad refers to the influence of the armed factions, saying: “I myself surveyed and identified land in the Rashidieh region, which is state-owned land, and leaders of the “League of the Righteous” facilitated their sale.”
This corresponds to what a senior employee in the right-side real estate registration indicated to us, who told us that the economic offices of the PMF (the most effective of which are affiliated to the “League of the Righteous” faction), carried out, immediately after the liberation of Mosul, a complete inventory of state-owned real estate throughout Nineveh and Mosul in particular.
“They contacted all the heirs of properties which the state had not registered their acquisition in public records, and through them new papers were issued and the real estate was sold.”
The employee stresses that the judicial and security investigations ended in the sacrifice of “scapegoats,” which is similar to what had happened with the former Land Registry director Farhan Hussein Taha. As for the PMF, there are, according to what the silent partner described, “no sign of them in forgery operations and no one dares to clash with them.”
“Affiliated to the Gangs”
During our investigation of counterfeiting of public lands papers, we met Yunus A. who informed us about the royal titles for the plot numbered 149 of the province 38 in Northern Yarmajah. This land belonged to the family of Yunus, but it was taken over by the state in 1988. He was surprised that a housing association called “Umm Al-Rabiain” divided it and sold it in 2012.
Yunus tries to trace the line of those who obtained the illegal rights before, as he acknowledges that the land belongs to the state and that his father has received its price, but nevertheless, he tries his luck so he may get something like others did. He justifies this by saying: “The state bought it from us at a low price, and today its price is much higher.”
Remarkably, when we followed the work of the Association of Umm Al-Rabi’en mentioned by Yunus, we found that its president, Najat Hussein al-Jabouri, was a candidate in the last parliamentary elections on the “National List,” and an arrest warrant was issued against her in March 2018 on charges of terrorism, according to Article 4 first of the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 13 of 2005.
A source in the Special Investigation Court for Terrorism Issues said that the head of the “Umm Al-Rabi’in” association is accused of trading in real estate for the benefit of “ISIS” during their control of Mosul after 2014, and to disguise her career, she was nominated in the parliamentary elections on the national list led by the parliamentarian and former Minister of Agriculture Falah Al-Zaidan. She ran her campaign while in Al-Tasfirat prison in Mosul, hoping that winning a parliamentary post would save her from the gallows. The spread of her propaganda pictures in the main streets of Mosul in the spring of 2018 sparked a wave of popular discontent and criticism of the election commission procedures that allowed a candidate accused of terrorism to run in the elections.
The source added that al-Jabouri “used to sell the same residential property or land to people and when she was asked to return the money or settle the real estate situation she said she was an affiliate of the “League of the Righteous” which is known for its security control in Mosul, and this seemed realistic for many because she usually appeared accompanied by a group of gunmen.
Although her affiliation with the League is not confirmed, it is evident that she was taking advantage of this faction’s cover to carry out real estate buying and selling. This was confirmed by the former defense minister and the current deputy of Nineveh, Khaled al-Ubaidi, and he explained that a convoy of cars was accompanying her while roaming between government departments and institutions, to facilitate procedures related to their trade in the sale and rent of real estate in Mosul. He stated that the Nineveh operations command was aware of this,”but the powerful forces (as he describes them, avoiding mentioning the name of the PMF) have a good grip over things there.”
Theft and Manipulation
On the left side of Mosul and also within the scope of al-Zohour land registry, we noticed 180 donums of land in the industrial zone, it was neutralized (set aside) and a sign was put there with the words: “Lands of Al-Nour Housing Association” but in fact, as confirmed by an law-specializing employee in the Legal Division of Mosul Municipality, the land is state-owned, and was originally intended for industrial projects and leased through usufruct for over 20-year contracts, during which the investor is entitled to use the property, and then the ownership of the property, along with its fixtures, returns to the state.
“None of this happened here,” said the employee, although that piece of land is in a special location, on the highway between the industrial zone and the Television Cemetery near the Intisar district.
In the same area, we observed a full residential neighborhood in a state-owned land area of about 200 donums, between al-Karama district and the industrial zone, which Mosul municipality used to rent as storage and sale spaces for reinforcement steel, and Mosul had not witnessed the sale of any state-owned land under the Law of Sale and lease of State Assets.
“What happens is that they are seized and sold in broad daylight, both to individuals and to associations after the paperwork and records are manipulated in the real estate registry department,” says the Legal Division employee of the Mosul municipality.
“I will Lose My Life”
Private real estate whose papers were rigged and sold at “al-Zohour” land registry has a different story than that of state-owned real estate. Most of them, according to brokers we interviewed, used to belong to housing associations or displaced Christians, whom ISIS expelled and seized their properties during its control over Mosul, and did not return after the liberation of the city. Some of these properties belong to people accused of cooperating with ISIS, who were unable to object because they are being pursued by the authorities.
Most of these properties are currently occupied by the economic offices of the Popular Mobilization Forces, including properties sold in its name, or in the name of people associated with it.
The economic office of the “League of the Righteous” itself, located near the “Gondol Lahmacun” restaurant on the left side of Mosul, seized lands that were owned by al-Hadbaa Cooperative Association, although it had been distributed by lot to citizens who had paid their prices, and have been waiting for years to receive their contracts. Three of them are the heirs of Mrs. Najat N., who died about two years ago. They stated that they could not prove their mother’s right to the ownership of a residential piece of land (200 square meters) or transfer the ownership to themselves, “because the ‘League’ prevents any action related to our land or any other land within this area.”
Do Not Approach
Other pieces of land belonging to the “Municipality Employees Housing Association” were seized by the Popular Mobilization Forces. The association, as we discovered by following up on its file, was founded by a person called Ahmed Saadi Mahdi.
A source well-informed of the talks between Ahmad Saadi Mahdi and a leader in the “Brigade 30” of the Popular Mobilization Forces, or the Shabak Militia, revealed that Mahdi paid $1.2 billion Iraqi dinars (about 1 million USD), to get permission from PMF to zone the land (divide it, mark roads, pavements, services, water pipes, and power lines). “What happened was that they accepted the money from him, then they soon returned and prevented him from approaching the land or making any changes,” according to the source.
Just one residential neighborhood behind the Kindi facility (a military manufacturing facility under the former Iraqi regime) in 2010, an association called “Industrial Family” divided agricultural land and sold it to citizens with promises to change its use permit into residential and provide infrastructure and services.
But since the liberation of Mosul in mid-2017, the association has not been keeping its promises, and has demanded every buyer to pay $4,000.
The reason, according to Hussein Haidar Abdul-Wahed, one of the owners of one of those pieces, is that “the PMF prevents any change in property in the region until funds are paid, so the housing association returns to buyers for money, claiming that it is a service-provision expense.”
Other properties owned by citizens of the Sunni Turkmens, faced the same fate, in the north of the city, in al-Kabbah, Shrikhan, eastern and western Qara Qoyunlu and al-Rashidiah.
Locals say that the active factions there, League of the Righteous, the Khorasani Brigades, and the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, have confiscated farmland and replaced the owners. They have been taking crop revenues from farmers for three years.
For weeks, we have been contacting the administrative officials in Mosul and with officials in its municipalities, to clarify the role of the economic offices of the PMF and the accuracy of information regarding their land seizure, but they all refused to respond.
Furthermore, the PMF imposes a ban on the sale and purchase of real estate, in Nineveh Plain and areas within Mosul, without their prior knowledge and consent. The prohibition includes any modification of the property by its owner, such as restoration, extension or demolition. It extends to the entire Nineveh plain, including the Christian areas and to Mosul, including the northern Hadbaa.
This is similar to what Peshmerga forces were doing in the disputed areas between Kurdistan and Nineveh under article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, according to Ni’mat Salah, a researcher in minority affairs. It did not allow any Arab people living in those areas (Sinjar, Tel Kif, Al-Hamdaniya, Al-Shikhan, Fayda and parts of Nineveh plain, where there is a Shabak Shiite majority), to make any change to their own properties.
Ni’mat Salah says that the “Brigade 30” in the Nineveh Plain treated the non-Shabak residents of the Nineveh Plain in the same manner, and that Shia militias seized land of Christian and Sunni citizens with different pretexts, warning against “worsening sectarian unrest and its transformation into armed violence,” and reminding of the Iraqi army’s practices in Mosul under Nouri al-Maliki, which paved the way for ISIS to enter.
Nafie Abdul-Qader (alias), a citizen of Mosul, tried his luck in selling the residential land he had owned in the Nineveh plain in early 2019. The sale and purchase between the two parties was limited to a written contract without real estate registration. When the PMF knew about that, he was arrested.
Nafie tells Daraj about how he was taken, in a PMF car, in a state of great awe and fear, to the headquarters of the Preventive Security Service of the PMF in the forest area (in central Mosul on the bank of Tigris River, a tourist area). He said that the place where he was detained, used to be the guest house of Watban Ibrahim Al-Hassan, the half brother of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein before 2003, (who died in prison in 2015 of a heart attack).
Nafie was threatened there. He confirmed that they would accuse him of a “ready-made charge.” He meant terrorism by this phrase, a charge provided for in Article 4 of the Terrorism Act 13 of 2005. “Under pressure, I gave up the idea of selling the property and my clan sought intermediaries to get me released. They had to pay $10,000.”
A Nineveh political activist expressed, commenting on the “transformation of the role of the PMF” from factions to confront terrorist organizations and control security in Nineveh into factions with economic-political influence, thanks to their economic offices. That shift, and those real-estate investments, and acquisitions in Iraq’s second-largest governorate “will give it the ability to finance itself for years to come, even if government funding is cut off, thereby sustaining its political impact and imposing its will in an environment that is not its own.”
This investigative report was prepared with the participation of the Nineveh Investigative team and with support from NIRIJ (Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism), under the supervision of Kami al-Melhem.