Illegal vendors are using fake documents and forged signatures to sell houses that belong to displaced Iraqis who have been forced to leave their homes as a result of sectarian violence. Some of them, according to Ministry of Construction officials, produce documents in English which say the US authorities' in Iraq have authorised the sale of such properties, thus making unsuspecting buyers confident that the transaction is legal.
"Usually they look for illiterate people or those who do not understand English properly so that their documents can have a veneer of legality. Buyers only discover that they have been duped when they move to the house and are alerted by neighbours, or when the original owner returns to check on his property," Saleh Abdel-Rahman, mayor of Baghdad's Dora district, said.
According to Abdel-Rahman, the prices paid for the houses are nearly half the market rate and for this reason many people are encouraged to buy.
"I had my savings from years of work and two days later I bought the house. I gave him the money and he gave me the documents. A week later men came to the house forcing me to leave. I was shocked when they showed me their original documents proving that mine were false. I had to leave and, of course, I never heard from the seller again," Haytham Muhammad, 45, one of the victims in the house-for-sale scam, told IRIN.
Nissrine Issam, a senior official in the Ministry of Construction and Housing, said citizens should be extra careful when exchanging documents for the sale of houses or goods; they should never use third parties, such as agents, in their transactions.
In some districts where violence is escalating, new residents who bought houses with fake documents are refusing to leave the properties they bought and are asking for protection from militias.
"I decided to leave Iraq for Jordan and when I found a buyer for my house and returned to sell it I found people living in my home. After explaining that the property was mine, I asked them to leave but they called a militia group which threw me out of the neighbourhood with a gun at my head and with the threat that if I ever got close to the house again I would be killed," said Abu Khalil, 51, a displaced person who has now lost his home in this manner.
"I went to the police station asking for help and the only answer I got was that the neighbourhood was very dangerous and the police couldn't do anything to help me," Abu Khalil added. "Until they control the violence I have to continue living as a displaced person, without money to travel and with the possibility of being killed at any time."
The problem is compounded by the fact that the majority of property - houses and land - in Iraq is not in the name of the people who claim to own it, specialists say. Many people do not have title to their own land or houses.