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Internet cafes springing up, giving Iraqis new freedom of information

BAGHDAD, Iraq—As Baghdad enters its third month since the war with no citywide phone service, Iraqis are turning to newly reopened Internet centers for inexpensive chats with far-flung relatives and Web searches for new business opportunities.

Many Baghdad residents used the Internet from home before the war, but can't use their home systems now since the telephone connections are out. The Internet centers rely on a wireless network.

Satellite phone rentals are widely available, but at about $1 a minute, they are much more expensive than the Internet.

Saddam Hussein's regime had banned free e-mail and live chat. Free e-mail would have dissuaded people from signing up for subscriptions to Iraqi Internet service providers, and live chat was tough to monitor and halt.

Now Iraqis are free to use the Internet as they like. During recent visits to the Internet centers, customers mainly were trying to contact relatives or price appliances, electronics and cars. Internet center workers said many people browsed the Web to look for jobs or for goods to buy and import into Iraq.

"This is a new sense of freedom for us. We are not in a very secure society yet, but at least we can say whatever we like," said Firas Behnam, 27, a worker at the former State Company for Internet Services center in the neighborhood of Adil.

Under Saddam, Iraqis could look at foreign news sites such as the BBC and CNN at least part of the time. "Sometimes it said access denied, sometimes not," Behnam said. "It depended on the news of the day, and how aggressive it was."

"Some Web sites are still closed, but if you let us know, we will reopen them," said Yaser Hassan, 30, the manager of the Adil center. "The users here want everything fast. They complain loudly when they see `access denied,' even though they did not complain for 30 years."

Before the war, Behnam worked at the state Internet center in the al Rasheed Hotel, helping customers use e-mail. "I had to organize this and of course read the messages. Sometimes, if there was anything interesting, we had to tell the authorities. Most of the al Rasheed Hotel guests were reporters, and Iraqi intelligence agents came to us to ask what are they sending."

The Adil center has been open for two weeks. Some routers and servers stored at another location were looted, but most of the center's computers were protected in people's homes during the war.

Customers at private Internet cafes in well-to-do neighborhoods pay about $5 for an hour for high-speed access. At the center in Adil, Iraqis and U.S. soldiers line up to access e-mail for 200 dinars an hour, about $1.33.

Many customers at the Internet centers use "instant messenger" services that can be done in text or by voice through a microphone attached to the computer.

Customer Ali al Ghaib, 59, has relatives all over the world, including sisters in Germany and Canada and a brother, son and daughter in the United Arab Emirates.

"We have been in touch before with a satellite phone, which costs too much. We did one chat with Canada yesterday, now we are talking to Germany," al Ghaib said. "We are trying to do some business with them, to find a way to live, a way to survive. I want to see if there are any foreign companies that are trying to do business here. I have a company that does legal services, management, technical help and contracting."

Iraq has two providers of Internet services, uruklink.net and wakaa.net, which started up several months before the war when uruklink.net was full. Iraqis paid about 50,000 dinars, or $33, for three months for connections at home.

Syed Mohamed, 27, the Baghdad branch manager for a Bangladeshi construction and engineering company, can't use his home connection now since his telephone doesn't work, so he goes to the center.

"I'm chatting with my family, with my mom, my brother, my sister, my niece in Bangladesh," Mohamed said. "I've been here through the war, and I come here every two or three days to chat. It's cheap. Before, they didn't even allow you to open free e-mail. I'm telling my family I'm fine, don't worry. Life is hard, but it goes on."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+INTERNETCAFE

Iraq

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