عربي | كوردى

Iraqi Shiite groups deepen control in strategic Sunni areas

Iraqi Shiite groups deepen control in strategic Sunni areas

2019/06/13 | 20:20

(Hatha al-Youm | Iraq News)- The only sign that Sunni-majority Mosul’s newest and busiest

marketplace is in Shiite Muslim hands is a small plaque in the office of its

leaseholder from Baghdad.“The Imam Hussein Market,” it reads, dedicated to the

Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and most revered Shiite imam.Banners of Shiite leaders that militiamen erected after

helping drive out the Sunni extremists of ISIS two years ago have been removed

amid fears of renewed sectarian tension.Iraq’s second city, once a recruitment center for Sunni

officers in Saddam Hussein’s army, became an al-Qaeda hotbed after the 2003 US

invasion that toppled the dictator, and later the base from where ISIS leader

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in 2014.Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary groups that played a

crucial role in driving out ISIS have since become dominant in the city, if

less visibly than before.But Shiite religious authorities are now quietly seeking to

formally take over state land and property they say is historically Shiite –

something that has incensed Sunni officials.In the Imam Hussein marketplace, an area of some 60 shops

and stalls, they have established a lucrative foothold.Shiite paramilitary groups deny accusations by local

officials that they provide at least the implied threat of force to back up Shiite

claims of land ownership.But many Iraqi Sunnis view the growth of Shiite land control

and investment in areas once held by ISIS as a sign of the expanding power of

the militias and influence of Iran.“Today in Iraq, the last word goes to whoever has force, and

that’s what these groups have. Law means nothing,” said Mosul lawmaker Shirwan

Dubardani.The areas the Shiite groups and authorities are seeking to

acquire lie in a strategic corridor of territory stretching from Tehran to

Beirut. Greater Shiite control there, whether by Iranian allies or others, is

important for Iran as it seeks to offset US economic sanctions.It comes at a time when Iran has been expanding its

influence in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, while asserting its readiness to take on

its Saudi and US enemies.There is also evidence of further Iranian-linked Shiite

expansion in Iraq. North of Baghdad on the way to Mosul – and near a military

base hosting US forces – an Iranian-backed militia offered to buy an area where

it built a shrine to an Iranian general killed fighting ISIS in 2014, the owner

of the land said.The owner refused, but cannot return with the area sealed

off by policemen linked to the militia. “They’re not satisfied with controlling

land – they want formal, legal control,” he said, declining to be named for

fear of reprisals.In Mosul, it is religious authorities, not militias, that are

seeking property, particularly older shrines and mosques.Iraq’s Shiite endowment office – a government body that

administers religious sites and real estate – is using legal recourse,

incentives and influence to invest in several areas of Mosul, according to

local authorities, business owners, investors and documents seen by Reuters.Such claims could be explosive.“We sometimes worry that armed force will be used, by either

side,” said Mosul Mayor Zuheir al-Araji.Officials in the city accuse the Shiite endowment and armed

groups of unlawful land grabs to make money and force demographic change.Shiite armed groups and investors deny this, saying all

property takeovers are legal and those lands rightfully Shiite.The Shiite endowment did not immediately respond to a

request for comment. Its Mosul branch declined several requests. The Iraqi

prime minister’s office declined to comment on the issue.The Sunni endowment says it owns all state religious land in

Mosul including sites claimed by Shiites. But the battle over legal ownership

of areas claimed by both sects is intractable. A complex legal process for

solving disputes favors those with power, analysts say.MONEY, CHARM AND THREATSIn the past year, the Shiite endowment issued notices

asserting ownership of several sites in Mosul that it had long claimed, handing

leases for attached commercial areas to investors.More recent claims have stalled pending appeals by Sunni

officials and the town hall. But the marketplace is already operating as a Shiite

endowment-owned area.“The Shiite endowment has rights to this land, which

historically was a Shiite cemetery,” said Uday Muhsin, the market leaseholder.He pays 170 million dinars yearly ($143,000) to the

endowment which he says goes to a fund for wounded Shiite fighters and victims

of ISIS.Last year, Muhsin began leasing the deserted site opposite

the tomb of Nabi Yunis (the Prophet Jonah), which was destroyed by ISIS. He

rents it out to local traders, and showed papers from city authorities letting

him do so.Market vendors said the rent of roughly $200 per month is

about half what they would pay in areas administered by the Sunni endowment.It is one way of winning local support and securing control,

Sunni officials say. They say the takeover was illegal and dispute the area’s

Shiite heritage – the basis for the endowment’s claim to it.“People accept it because it’s done in an attractive way.

They’re poor and need the money,” Mosul’s Sunni endowment director Abu Bakr

Kanaan said.But behind paperwork and lower rent there is the implied

threat of force, said Kanaan and shopowners in another area the Shiite

endowment claimed last month.“A Shiite investor came to 20 stores on this road, saying we

must sign new rental agreements with him,” said Abu Mohammed, who owns a shop

that abuts state religious property in the Old City managed by the Sunni

endowment.The investor produced a document from the Shiite endowment,

a copy of which was seen by Reuters, declaring ownership of the area and

leasing him the properties for around $40,000 per year.“He was charming at first, and was offering better rent. But

when we hesitated he threatened to throw us out. He clearly had connections and

force behind him,” said Abu Mohammed. He declined to give his full name for

fear of reprisals.Harith Hasan, an Iraq expert at the Carnegie Middle East

Center, said the Shiite endowment “often reinforces its guardianship not only

through the legal process but also by allying with groups that are present on

the ground.”Paramilitaries in Mosul denied involvement but said they had

once intervened to “calm things down” between the two sides.“The Sunni endowment chief doesn’t accept the idea that the

Shiite endowment can take land in Mosul,” said Hayder Abu Hadma, a deputy

commander in the Iranian Militias in Iraq and Syria (IMIS), the official

grouping of Iraq’s Shiite paramilitaries.“But he knows very well there are many Shiites here and 20

to 30 Shiite shrines,” he said.SECTARIAN SYSTEMUnder Saddam a single endowment ministry ran all state

religious lands, which Shiites persecuted by the dictator complained left them

unable to oversee their heritage.The ministry disbanded after 2003, replaced by separate Shiite

and Sunni endowment offices. When a mosque or shrine is claimed by both, a

committee with representatives from both sides must decide. It often cannot,

leaving decisions pending and benefiting whoever has sway in courts or on the

ground.In recent years the Shiite endowment “has been in a better

position to advance its claims, given the support it has enjoyed from Shiite

Islamist parties that dominated the government and parliament,” Hasan said.Around Mosul, once a melting pot for ethnic and religious

groups along the ancient Silk Road, ISIS destroyed Shiite shrines. Now many IMIS

groups see defense of shrines as their primary task.“They think they have the right to our religious sites

because ISIS blew up Shiite property. It’s all about money, from investment and

rent to attracting pilgrims who would eventually visit,” Kanaan said.Sunni authorities acknowledge the Shiite heritage around

Mosul. But they say most heritage inside the city is Sunni.Mayor Araji hopes the Shiite endowment will stop claiming

property, which would encourage stability.After the chaos that followed the end of ISIS, things were

now more under control, he said. “But we need Baghdad’s support. We can’t bring

law and order on our own.”


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