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Once forbidden satellite dishes hot sellers on Iraqi black market

KIRKUK, Iraq—The criminals would come out after dark, quietly making their way onto rooftops to commit nightly acts of treason.

Their crime under the regime of Saddam Hussein: setting up satellite dishes and watching TV programs from outside Iraq. The penalty: six months in prison and a fine of a year's salary.

In the space of a week, however, satellite dishes have become a hot consumer item in the new Iraq.

There are other signs of a new modernity emerging as well, as technicians repair telephone systems that were sabotaged as Saddam's regime was falling. In the northern city of Kirkuk, residents for the first time can send faxes and make international calls without the secret police listening in.

The Internet had been outlawed, too, but Kirkuk's first Internet center is now due to open later this week. Under Saddam, such things were not only illegal, they were unimaginable.

"Before, in each neighborhood there was maybe one satellite dish, but these were always kept very secret because any neighbor might be an informant," said Muzaffar Ali, a dish salesman with a small shop in Kirkuk. "Now all people want them so much."

Satellite dishes were legal, even commonplace, in the autonomous ethnic enclave of Iraqi Kurdistan. Even Kurdish refugees living in tents would rig up dishes and receivers that would run off car batteries or kerosene-powered generators.

Second-hand dishes from Kurdistan are now flooding into Kirkuk and other liberated cities in Iraq. The most popular shows are the news broadcasts on Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV.

Basic satellite dishes, which are available on street corners and sidewalks, go for as little as $150. Even a rusty dish and a used analog receiver can get 50 channels.

A new dish hooked up to a digital receiver made in China, South Korea or Israel can bring in 2,000 channels. These setups go for $300, and there are no extra fees or monthly payments.

"This is still quite expensive for most Iraqis, but people are getting the money somehow," said Ali. "Everyone wants a dish."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Dispatches+McDonald