Thursday, February 26, 2004

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Baghdad’s residents by the end of March will be able to make calls from across the Iraqi capital as repairs are completed on 11 telephone exchanges destroyed by U.S. bombing during the war last year.

Al-Mamoun, the last exchange to be replaced, was opened yesterday, and Iraqi technicians have begun hooking up tens of thousands of subscribers without telephone service for almost a year.

“This has been a giant achievement, considering the security situation. We expect all subscribers to be hooked back up by the end of March,” Telecom Minister Haidar al-Ebadi said during a ceremony to open al-Mamoun.

A U.S. force of tanks stood guard around the complex, Baghdad’s main communications site.

Lucent Technologies supplied the switches for the $50 million project, managed by Bechtel, which was awarded major U.S. contracts in postwar Iraq.

Telephone service will be free until a new billing system is set up.

Baghdad, a city of more than 5 million people, had 540,000 land lines before the war. Phone services covered less than 4 percent of the Iraqi population, as economic sanctions prevented access to maintenance parts and expanding the network.

Mr. al-Ebadi said the Iraqi Governing Council’s goal is to make phones available to more than 10 percent of all Iraqis by the end of the year.

“We consider the telephone service to be very vital to the Iraqi public, very vital to the economy, very vital to Iraqi security,” he said.

Iraq’s telecommunications system was partially rebuilt after the 1991 Persian Gulf war despite the sanctions. The U.S.-led invasion last year destroyed the 11 telephone exchanges in Baghdad, one in Samarra to the north and part of the fiber-optics network. Postwar looting increased the damage.

The al-Mamoun exchange was destroyed by cruise missiles. Looters then stripped the building, taking equipment and records, leaving the center a battered shell. They also dug up large sections of phone cable and melted it down to sell the valuable copper inside.

Baghdad’s communications improved this month after a cell-phone network built by Egypt’s Orascom Telecom began operations.

The network covers one-third of greater Baghdad but will encompass the center of the country in a year.

Cell phones were virtually nonexistent under former President Saddam Hussein because of international sanctions imposed in 1991 at the end of the Gulf war and his repressive regime’s fear of unfettered mass communication.

The mobile operators are in the midst of rolling out their services to 400,000 subscribers, and they say the market can expand further in the country of 25 million people, with limited competition from cheaper land lines.

The telecom ministry awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to Technology Partners, an Iraqi company, earlier this week to set up a phone-service billing and service system.

Work also is under way to provide international calling. A satellite gateway, supplied by U.S.-based Globecomm Systems, has been installed in Mamoun Tower.

The tower, which survived last year’s bombing and houses a revolving restaurant, was built a decade ago to replace a smaller tower that was bombed in 1991.

“The revolving restaurant never worked properly,” telecom engineer Abdelsaheb Hassan said, adding that Saddam wanted the tower built so quickly that engineers got the design wrong.

“He scared people into action,” Mr. Hassan said. “We actually restored the land-line network faster after the Gulf war.”

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