BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi army bulldozers roared into a squatters’ camp in Baghdad on Thursday, witnesses said, ignoring protests by the thousands of people who have lived in the abandoned arms depot for the past five years.
Dozens of soldiers backed by Iraqi police began dismantling the camp in the city’s mostly Shiite Hurriyah neighbourhood where some 675 families — around 4,000 people — have lived since they fled from Sunni insurgents in late 2003.
The army would not allow reporters to enter the area, saying it was “government-owned property,” but from the entrance to the camp an AFP correspondent saw troops demolish several houses.
The residents of the camp fled there in late 2003 and 2004 at the start of the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country in recent years, and ever since they have been living in crude brick and concrete shacks.
“I packed up everything, and I’m going to go and live on a street corner in Kadhimiyah,” said Abu Mustafa, one of the squatters, referring to an adjacant district.
Tens of thousands of squatters currently live in dozens of abandoned military sites throughout the capital.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) five percent of Iraq’s 1.3 million internally displaced people live in public buildings, and 0.4 percent live in military installations.
Several months ago Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki decided to reclaim all public buildings, initially ordering political parties to evacuate the sites and then taking aim at the squatter communities, including those in Hurriyah.
Iraq’s housing ministry estimates the country is in need of some two million new housing units to replace those lost in years of fighting and to keep pace with the country’s growing population.