- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

BAGHDAD — Amr Bakr and the rest of Iraq have been cut off from the Internet since American missiles demolished antennas and transmitters atop the Iraq Ministry of Information building early last month.

Mr. Bakr, a computer repairman, is an Internet addict. These days he finds himself in need of a fix.

“I miss it a lot,” said Mr. Bakr, sitting in a computer-repair shop next to one of Baghdad’s shuttered state Internet cafes. “I used to use it at least five to six hours a day.”

Although Mr. Bakr and other Iraqis are upset about the slicing of their precious tether to the world, they’re also optimistic about the future of the Internet in Iraq, where access was available to a tiny minority — and then under severe restrictions.

“I consider it as a gate to the 21st century for Iraqis who have been living in a dark age,” said Shakir Abdulla, director general of the State Company for Internet Services, the agency that distributed the Internet in Iraq. “This will change their mentality.”

For the past few weeks, Mr. Abdulla’s technicians have been hammering together an Internet base station that will soon serve a 50-seat Internet cafe and some homes for the first time since April.

Until then, Internet access comes through only personal satellite phones carried mostly by reporters here or through a cafe in the city’s Babil district with five computers hooked up to a satellite phone.

When it arrives, an unfettered Internet will nudge Iraqi society in new directions, offering business opportunities, alternative politics and contact with people abroad. Such leaps in communication can also stoke unrest.

“It’s not clear that shopping is what they’ve got in mind. Or maybe shopping is exactly what they have in mind,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The respective popularity of each function of the Internet is very culturally derived.”

For now, the Internet here is barely a memory.

The country’s 65 or so Internet cafes — where most Iraqis logged on — have been looted. Employees of the State Company for Internet Services took home the few surviving machines for safekeeping.

Power sources are unreliable. Most of the phones in Iraq don’t work, so widespread Internet access is not likely until they are fixed.

But there is hope — and action.

The state company’s engineers salvaged one of its satellite transceivers from the burned-out Ministry of Information and winched it atop a two-story building in the al-Adel neighborhood in West Baghdad.

After weeks of cobbling and calibrating, the dish was able to send and receive a satellite signal about a week ago. It’s a temporary earth station, soon to be an Internet cafe.

“We built it from scrap. We had to weld it and build it manually,” said Mr. Abdullah, a gray-haired man whose fingers fidget over a string of wooden prayer beads.

With 50 computers squirreled away, and security guards and a diesel generator at the ready, the Baghdad cafe will offer the public its first taste of the Internet since early April.

“It’s a challenge for us to work under these conditions. But we’ve got good minds,” said Maathir Fahad, 32, a database programmer in a blue head scarf who is helping prepare the cafe, a blocky concrete house sitting behind a tall hedge.

One incentive is that the company already paid for a year’s worth of satellite Internet bandwidth, which is still being beamed from space.

Mr. Abdulla said he has asked the U.S.-led Organization for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for a satellite base station and transmitter to replace the wrecked ones.

Even before the war, Iraq was no haven for Internet surfers. The country of 24 million was one of the last in the region to join the Internet community, counting about 250,000 users, almost all of whom surfed the Web in state-run cafes, Mr. Abdulla said.

Home access was permitted only last year, with just 25,000 accounts.

The country used less than 10 megabits per second of Internet bandwidth, about the same amount as a big-city office building in the United States and the lowest of any Arab country, according to TeleGeography Inc., a Washington-based consulting company.

Iraq’s Ministry of Information blocked much of the Web and permitted only e-mail from Iraq-based servers that sent copies of messages to the government, Mr. Abdulla said. No private Yahoo e-mail, no chat rooms, no opposition news or political sites, no pornography.

Still, “Iraqis were very happy with that service,” Mr. Abdulla said.

Because the Internet here will largely be rebuilt from scratch, it can be configured in the prewar manner with all traffic funneled through a central location, making censorship easier, or it can be rebuilt with multiple earth stations, which will make filtering more difficult to impose later.

And if Iraqis receive unfettered access from the start, Mr. Zittrain said, future regimes will have a difficult time trying to censor it later.

“It’s a lot harder to take something away from someone than to deprive them of something all along,” Mr. Zittrain said.

When he gets the Internet up and running again, Mr. Abdulla says, all filters and restrictions will be off — “unless we as a company decide to block porn.”

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