Iraq: the view from the ground

Long way to go with Internet and IT infrastructure

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With post-war Iraq continuing to create huge controversy - non-existent WMDs, organised Iraqi resistance, uncaptured Saddam, little or no electricity or running water - we thought we'd look at the wholly less controversial issue of IT infrastructure. What there is, what there was and what efforts are being put in to make it better.

Aside from a range of information sources, we have also been lucky enough to be in contact with an IT contractor and Register reader working out there who has given us a fascinating account of what is going on from the ground, free from censorship and politics.

It is no secret that in the original Gulf War the country's communication infrastructure was targeted - hardly a surprise when you consider the military value of broken communications. Since then, the embargo placed on Iraq has made it extremely difficult for the country to install the kind of IT infrastructure we take for granted in the rest of the world.

There is for example an extremely limited internal and international phone system, almost no computer network, phone coverage is extremely patchy even in city centres and there is still no direct cable Internet link to the rest of the world. Instead, Iraq's tiny and centralised Internet access has always been put through a single government-run domain - Uruklink.net - connected by satellite.

That the Internet has passed Iraq by is proven by the fact that the .iq country-code domain is still owned by one Saud Alani and his brother Bayan Elashi - both of whom live in Texas and both of whom are currently in US jail accused of funding Palestinian terrorists. Perhaps an indication of the slow progress in Iraq is the fact that ICANN has still not received a formal request for the Iraq domain to be redelegated (something that is inevitable). When the US over-ran Afghanistan redelegation of the .af domain began just three weeks later.

Needless to say, the latest attack on Iraq by US and UK forces has destroyed what little infrastructure there was remaining. Uruklink.net went down almost as soon as the attack began three months ago and only recently came back online.

According to our source on the ground: "As for ISPs or networks, there are none unless you use a satellite cellular phone. The long distance/international phone system was destroyed in the bombing, and little (if any) progress has been made thus far to assist them with rebuilding anything. Dialup on a satellite phone is not fun at all.

"Even with a supposed worldwide phone, coverage is still very, very hard to get as there are no towers left (that function, as far as I know). On casual trips into town, you can see lots of communications towers, TV towers, etc. but the people to man them and keep them running are in very short supply. Materials (spare parts, etc.) are extremely difficult to come by, and so the locals here have been pretty ingenious in keeping things running."

And things aren't getting better very fast either, for good reason. "Internet and communications are about dead last on the list. We're still concerned with power and water right now... communications won't be for about another six months to a year." The military is of course able to communicate using satellite systems and so is concentrating on the essentials - and are being hampered by the huge damage the bombing has done and occasional acts of vandalism and sabotage by disaffected Saddam supporters.

Incredibly though, despite years of authoritarian rule, the entrepreneurial spirit has found a way: "Since the war, all the underground business here have come out of the woodwork," says our man. "Satellite TV, cellular phone shops, you name it. All of these were forbidden in Saddam's time. I was able to go into a little town and purchase a complete computer system, CD burner, modem and network card, etc. for $430. There are satellite shops on the main street, and plenty more hidden away."

And the Internet it appears is somehow filtering through: "Very, very few people are currently online but more are setting up websites and such, and I'm starting to see more email addresses on business cards. Surprisingly, most I have seen are Yahoo email addresses."

With the close observation placed on all Internet traffic in Saddam's time now lifted and with ISPs non-existent, it seems Iraqis are taking advantage of free email services to communicate and escape censorship. With Microsoft often considered to be in bed with the US government and military, Yahoo rather than Hotmail it seems is the email system of choice for freed citizens.

Despite patchy electricity - meaning that all businesses ran happily with computers - there is a clear demand for PCs and with that has inevitably come the demand for software. Our man tells us: "Software piracy is rampant here. There is a shop here that will sell you CDs containing any kind of software you want (Visio, Photoshop, etc.) complete with serial numbers. Nobody thinks anything bad of it, either. Low-quality and/or sloppy work has become the norm here with the locals, so when Americans come through and show them a better way of doing things, they're surprised but are starting to follow the example. It's almost as if innovation and creative thought was shut off but is now slowly starting to come back."

Which would be a nice way of ending our quick insight into Iraq's IT problems, except for the heavy criticism levelled at the US administration in both Washington and Baghdad by people that have had first-hand experience.

Senior American official Timothy Carney who was key in helping rebuild post-war Iraq has strongly criticised the US reconstruction plans, saying there was a lack of resources and too little priority was given to rebuilding.

That other government ministries were comprehensively ransacked and museums looted while oil fields and the ministry dealing with oil were mostly left unharmed due to heavy military protection has been pointed at by critics as a selfish and transparent decision by the Bush administration with regard to their war aims.

Carney said the decision to put the reconstruction team under military control was the wrong one. And that the lack of effort put into rebuilding the phone network was hampering other efforts. He accused the White House of not thinking through its plans properly.

Criticism of the US administration was continued by the official adviser to the US and UK of constructing a post-war media network. Stephen Claypole went public to say that political pressures had undermined the aim of creating an impartial media.

Instead, he said, the US was using complete control of TV and radio stations to its own ends. He also pointed to the annihilation of the TV and radio stations and transmission infrastructure by precision bombing during the war and complained of constant communication troubles even with satellite phones.

Despite all the evidence that IT is very low on the priority list, however, some good news has been filtering through and predictions for the growth of mobiles and computers are extremely optimistic.

The EU for example this week agreed to lift the trade embargo so Iraq now has access to whatever goods it needs. Motorola has been granted a big contract for the country. Rebuilding of schools and colleges has been pushed higher up the agenda, including Internet cafes.

And a research company called Madar Research has predicted that Iraq will spent $6.4 billion on information and communication technology by 2008 - equivalent to eight per cent of its Gross Domestic Product. It is also pointing to triple-digit growth in mobile phone and Internet use by 2008 - although considering the number of people actually using it at the moment, this is not as impressive as it sounds. Fixed-line subscribers with home PCs will grow annually by between 33 and 47 per cent, it claims.

Which all sounds lovely but then it is easy to forget that even with its wealth, Iraq remains one of the most technologically deprived countries on the planet. It will be at least a year before it can even see the people it is chasing in the technological revolution. ®

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