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Internet arrives in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—There's no instant messaging, no wireless networks and definitely no private Hotmail accounts. But the Internet has finally arrived in forlorn Iraq.

After resisting the Internet as a freewheeling tool of globalization and political anarchy for a decade, Saddam Hussein's regime has cautiously embraced it.

Internet cafes have sprung up all over Baghdad in recent months, and even in smaller cities such as Karbala, a religiously conservative city 75 miles southwest of the capital. Just last month, the government took another major step, permitting some citizens to have Internet connections at home.

Iraqis can now surf the Web and send e-mails to their hearts' content—as long as they do it via, the government-controlled service provider monitored by Saddam's agents.

But despite those limits on the freedom to use the Internet, its debut here is a major breakthrough for Iraqi students, researchers and others. It is helping to erode the isolation from the outside world they've felt since the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the imposition of United Nations sanctions, now 12 years old.

Academics complain that, due to the sanctions, even getting scientific journals that have nothing to do with military matters can be impossible.

"I consider the Internet as the savior," said Sahar Mahmoud, 23, as she searched for Web sites on her field, reconstructive plastic surgery, at Baghdad University's main library. Doctors in Iraq, she said, "are not acquainted very much with my specialization."

It was Mahmoud's second day using the Internet, and she had not yet sent her first e-mail.

There are limits to the new freedom. Saddam's Iraq is one of the last Soviet-style police states, where personal cell phone service is nonexistent and foreigners with satellite phones are considered potential spies.

When Iraqis and foreigners try to access private e-mail boxes such as Hotmail or Yahoo!, they are greeted with a blunt message: "access denied." E-mails must go out via uruklink (Uruk was an ancient city in what is now southern Iraq), so they can be monitored.

Iraqis say there's nothing illegal about reading the Web sites of Western news organizations, and Web sites that present political views that clash with the regime's appear to be accessible. But visiting them risks incurring the government's wrath.

"You don' t really have the Internet here. You have very selective kind of government-controlled outlets," said James Jennings, who has been coming to Iraq since 1964, first as an archaeology student and now as president of Conscience International. Jennings' group does humanitarian work here, and he strongly opposes President Bush's threats to invade the country and topple Saddam.

When Internet service suddenly went out Sept. 17, the government claimed some kind of technical glitch.

Jennings didn't believe the explanation. Saddam's government, he suspects, wanted 24 hours to control the spin on the news that it had just promised to allow U.N. weapons inspectors unconditional access to the country in an effort to defuse Bush's threats.

Service was restored the next day, but there are still occasional service disruptions. "The pattern makes you feel it's often political," he said.

The regime first permitted Internet access for government ministries a few years ago. But back then, even high-ranking officials weren't allowed to send e-mails from their desks. They had to take them to a central clearing office.

The first Internet center for the public opened in early 2000, and cafes are now numerous on Baghdad's streets.

Home Internet access costs 50,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $25, every three months. There's an additional charge for each e-mail.

That's too much for many Iraqis, including Mahmoud. While she has a personal computer at home, she has chosen to do her surfing at the university Internet center, a small room outfitted with eight computer terminals.

Browsing is open to the public and costs a nominal 500 dinars, about 25 cents, said Majid Abdul Karim, secretary general of the university library. Karim is trying to establish a free research service, where teachers without home Internet access can call in and have online research done for them.

Officials acknowledge that Iraqis have sometimes succeeded in evading government restrictions, just as many people do in other countries, such as China, that control Internet use.

But sometimes there are obstacles on the outside, too.

Ammar Najim, a 24-year-old postgraduate student at Baghdad University's college of agriculture, has sent e-mails to researchers around the globe asking for help with his study of food irradiation.

Najim got no reply from the United States. "They are not cooperative with me," he said, producing a list of American experts he has tried to contact.

Despite all the problems, Jennings said he believes Iraqis are being changed by their newfound ability to contact the world outside and read alternate versions of world events.


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.