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Iraqi phone system in disarray

BAGHDAD, Iraq—It's bad enough that the streets aren't safe, the water isn't clean and the power is off for hours at a time.

All that would almost be bearable, Kowther Alani says, if she could call her friends and relatives on the telephone.

Like about half the residents of this city of 5 million, she can't. Four months after U.S. bombs destroyed Baghdad's key switching centers, many remain heaps of rubble. Wireless service, unknown under Saddam Hussein, is coming, but it is months away.

So, except for the few who are rich enough to afford a $1,000 satellite phone, Baghdadis can't call an ambulance, check up on a loved one or make a quick order for business supplies.

"It's just like being deaf," said Alani, who lives alone, her husband having been executed in the 1980's by Saddam's regime. Her phone came on for a week recently, she said, but then inexplicably went dead again.

"There's no security—they stole my car," she said. "You can't go out at night. But at least I could talk to my friends, my sister. Now I can't even do that."

U.S. contractors are working to repair Iraq's phone system, which was never very good in the first place. They have fixed the lines in most of the rest of the country, but a coalition spokesman said he couldn't say how long it might take to complete the job in Baghdad.

The quickest way to offer modern telecommunication to large numbers of Iraqis, experts agree, is by building a wireless network. And here's where the story takes a strange—and for many Iraqis, infuriating—twist.

A few weeks ago, Batelco, the government-owned telecommunications company of wealthy Gulf state Bahrain, finished work on a $5 million digital network in and around Baghdad—and turned it on. Around the same time, a British firm, MTC Vodaphone, launched a small network around Baghdad's airport.

Word spread quickly, and middle class Iraqis who had squirreled away mobile phones for travel abroad were thrilled to find powered-up handsets blinking to life with a full signal.

"It was lovely. I called all my friends," said Zaid Magazechi, who owns a shop that used to sell Russian crystal but now deals in phones. He sold twenty $100 Nokia handsets on the first day.

But the joy was short-lived. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority ordered the companies to shut down the network, and after a few days they did so.

Coalition officials said they considered the Batelco and Vodaphone networks to be "illegal," and argued that they amounted to an end-run around the coalition's ongoing process of soliciting bids for country-wide wireless service that is expected to start in mid-November.

Under that plan, the authority would designate three licensed carriers that would each serve a third of the country.

"In any country, the use of any kind of radio frequencies and bandwidth needs to be properly licensed and organized," coalition spokesman Charles Heatley said.

That may sound reasonable to Western ears, but for Iraqis grappling with 120-degree heat, an unprecedented crime wave, hours-long gasoline lines and daily power outages, it's maddening.

Many Iraqis think they know why the United States shut down the Batelco network.

"Because they want their own companies to get the business!" Magazechi said. And he wouldn't have a problem with that—if only the U.S. would move a little faster. "Saddam had the electricity and telephones fixed a few months after the Kuwait war."

Coalition officials say U.S. firms will have no advantage in the bidding, and they say wireless service will be available quickly, all things considered.

As they wait for it, Iraqis try to get by without Graham Bell's 1876 invention.

At one of Baghdad's main ambulance centers recently, the life-saving vehicles sat gathering dust in a parking lot, and the drivers were nowhere to be seen. That was understandable, since they get almost no business, despite the daily stream of deaths and injuries in the crime-ridden capital.

The only way to alert them in an emergency is to travel to the nearest station, and most people don't bother—they just drive the injured to the hospital. Woe to heart-attack victims and loners.

Nearby, at a fire station, Lt. Sffeen Rashid has a similar problem. By the time his men hear of a fire and arrive there, it's often too late.

"We show up and the home is burned to the ground," he said.

Some people, of course, have found a way to profit from this hardship—namely those who make, sell or rent satellite phones, on which calls cost at least $1 per minute. Phones on the network owned by Thuraya, a company based in United Arab Emirates, are ubiquitous here.

Magazechi, the former handicraft dealer, has sold at least 100 of them, he said, earning a $500 on each one.

Naiman Naiman owns one Thuraya phone, but it's replaced his flower shop as his main source of income. From a roadside stall, he offers paying customers calls by the minute.

"It's frustrating," said one of his customers, Abdul Amir, an office furniture seller. "I have to leave my business to make a phone call. And it's expensive."

Iraqis also grouse when they see one of the 10,000 military officers, civilian officials and contractors who does have a working mobile phone.

Those handsets are hooked up to a network set up by MCI, which won a controversial contract from the U.S. military outside the normal bidding procedure.

That network is a closed system. The Americans have handed a few phones out to key Iraqi officials, but the signal is inaccessible to ordinary mobile users.


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-TELEPHONES