Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Cat
Is Out
Of The Bag

There is such a thing as freedom, and the Iraqis are learning about it en masse:

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A few years ago, Ammar Adnan knew almost nothing about what was going on in the world of karate. But now Adnan, who heads Iraq's karate federation, is in contact with groups across the world, closely following events and championships wherever they occur.

It's all because of the Internet cafes — scarce during Saddam Hussein's rule — now spreading throughout Iraq.

Before Saddam's fall in spring 2003, many Iraqis had heard about the Internet, but very few had used it. Internet cafes were not common, security restrictions were tight and having a home connection was very costly.

Now that many are enjoying a higher income than under Saddam, thousands of Iraqis regularly pack shops throughout the country to check their e-mail, chat and surf — despite fears that any public place can be attacked.

"I do much of my work on the Internet," said the well-built Adnan, after checking his e-mail Friday at a cafe in eastern Baghdad.

"I contact the International Karate Organization from here. It is very simple, unlike before when it was extremely difficult to get in touch," he said referring to bad telephone lines and slow mail service during Saddam's rule.

Three months after the fall of Saddam, al-Rubei Internet Cafe became one of Baghdad's first private companies, and ever since business has been doing well, said manager Jarir Majid.

"The idea came when we thought that we wanted to do something with this shop, something that people needed," said Majid, speaking as most of the 50 computers in his shop were occupied. "The Internet is great. It is sad that Iraqis were deprived of this technology."

His business did fall off last year when a car bomb exploded nearby, causing damage to his shop, but it has since bounced back.

Before Saddam's ouster, from the 10th floor of what used to be the Ministry of Information building in central Baghdad, members of Saddam's intelligence agency worked around the clock blocking Web sites, e-mails and chat rooms.

The last thing the former regime wanted in this tightly controlled police state was people chatting with outsiders or entering anti-Saddam Web sites operated exiled Iraqis.

"Intelligence officers used to monitor sites and whenever they found a suspicious domain they used to block it," said Atheer Hassan, who used to work as a part-time technician with the Ministry of Information. Now, he runs his own Internet business, selling connections to people in their homes.

Under Saddam, at a time when most people made only a few dollars a month because of inflation and economic sanctions, few people could afford the annual Internet fee from the government of about $500. E-mails were only available through the ministry, meaning they were read by intelligence agents.

Now, restrictions are of a different sort — some Internet Cafe owners ban their clients from visiting pornographic sites. A sign decorating the Twin Tower Cafe reads: "To the brothers and dear Internet users. Please don't enter sites that contradict our religion and traditions."

Internet cafes aren't the only outlet: Distributors sell wireless connections to private homes for about $50 a month. Many complain that state-run land phone lines are still slow and unreliable.
Such prices are out of range still for many Iraqis, but the cafes fill the need. An hour costs about a $1.

Ibrahim Mahamoud, 24, now goes twice a week to an Internet cafe near his house to chat with friends and relatives living abroad.

"I used to speak with my relatives who live abroad once every few months," said Mahamoud, looking back and forth to the screen as he spoke. "Now I can chat with them anytime I want."

It looks as if we are winning the war in Iraq. Quick, someone, alert the media.