Baghdad Mansions Sell for $1 Million as Militants Near

Islamic State militants may be at the approaches to Baghdad yet members of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim elite are offering cash for $1 million homes in the capital’s sought-after Zayouna neighborhood.

Gilded mansions with jacuzzis in Italian-marble bathrooms and armored vehicles parked in the drive are replacing the humbler dwellings of the former middle-class Sunni, Shiite and Christian inhabitants, according to real-estate agents. House prices in the district, they say, have risen threefold since 2005.

“Wealthy government officials and military officers are buying houses in cash, tearing them down and building mansions,” said Abu Rana al-Zubaidy, a realtor who has witnessed the neighborhood’s transition from backwater to power center. With Sunni jihadists seizing territory less than an hour’s drive from the city, “there’s caution, but everyone still has plenty of money,” he said by phone.

The conspicuous displays of Shiite affluence in Zayouna are testament to the shift in political power since U.S. forces ended decades of Sunni dominance under Saddam Hussein, according to Andrew Bowen, Middle East scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.

“Sunnis complain that they are being excluded from power,” said Bowen, adding that the reversal in fortunes is fueling resentment and blocking efforts to unite the nation against the Islamist militants. “There is a strong perception that the new Shiite elite is using the state for their own ends.”

Army Camp

While wealth in Shiite-dominated provinces and Baghdad neighborhoods has held steady or increased, according to World Bank data, the opposite is happening in some Sunni areas. Poverty rose by more than half in the five years to 2012 in Nineveh, where Islamic State -- backed by some Sunni tribes -- seized the city of Mosul in June.

In Zayouna, an influx of army officers has turned a once quiet neighborhood into a heavily fortified cantonment, with patrols and security cameras keeping watch, said longtime resident Abu Mariam al-Dulaimi. “There’s an increasing feel of living in a military camp,” he said.

Realtors in the area say that homeowners include army general and media celebrity Mohammed al-Quraishi, who in 2004 featured in a television series called “The Grip of Justice.” The show followed Quraishi’s Wolf Brigade police commandos as they rounded up suspected insurgents.

The brigade, which also fought alongside U.S. forces in Iraq, was accused by the Sunni-controlled Muslim Scholars Association of torturing prisoners and pursuing a sectarian agenda. The brigade’s leaders denied the allegations.

Corruption Claims

Quraishi, who was in charge of Iraqi forces routed by Islamic State at Tal Afar in June, was one of a band of loyal, mainly Shiite army officers whose support had buttressed the rule of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He didn’t answer repeated calls to his mobile phone seeking comment. It wasn’t possible to obtain a title deed for the property.

The majority of the houses on one street in Zayouna have been sold to newcomers since 2005, when Iraq voted for its first Shiite-led government, according to Hassanain Taghi, a resident, with the number of sales to Shiite families accelerating in recent years. His neighbors, Dulaimi said, have been approached with cash offers of a million dollars.

The steady accumulation of wealth by establishment Shiites has also been accompanied by an ever louder chorus of corruption allegations.

Since taking office in August, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has sought to win back Sunni loyalty by making his government more inclusive and said he would address the issue of graft.

Cash Offers

Sunni anger over corruption has been a factor in driving some tribes to support Islamic State, Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation said by phone. “One way to reduce support for the militants is to do more to address corruption.”

Previous Iraqi governments have promised action against graft, without always delivering. The Commission of Integrity, an anti-corruption agency, in 2012 accused 14 generals and Defense Ministry officials of taking kickbacks in an arms deal with Russia worth $4.2 billion. All the men denied the allegations; one resigned.

Haitham al-Jubory, a lawmaker with the Shiite Dawa party, said the Abadi government’s assault on graft was just beginning. Fighting “corruption in the police and army” would be an important part of restoring security, he said.

With Islamic State militants in control of much of Anbar province neighboring Baghdad and near-daily bombings in the capital, concerns are growing in the city of a return to the sectarian violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam.

In the meantime, business is still brisk in the Zayouna housing market, according to the realtors. One junior military officer this year paid $750,000 for a 300 square-meter (3,230 square feet) house, said Dulaimi, the resident.

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