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Iraq: Once-Outlawed Satellite Dishes Sprouting Like Mushrooms On Baghdad's Rooftops

Satellite television dishes are sprouting like mushrooms on rooftops in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad. The trade in TV gear is flourishing, and enterprising Iraqi entrepreneurs see bright prospects for this business, which was banned during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Baghdad, 28 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Abu Mehdi is one of the owners of the Hyder shop in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The shop imports satellite dishes, receivers, and decoders from neighboring Jordan.

Mehdi said Iraqis are hungry for news from outside the country. "The news, the news. Al-Jazeera, yes. MBC [an Arabic-language channel]. Lubnan. Lubnan, very good Lubnan [a Lebanese channel]," he said.

Mehdi said people are buying satellite equipment for two reasons. The first one is that satellite television was illegal in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's rule and people now want to "taste a forbidden fruit." The other reason is that Iraqi state TV is off the air and people want access to news and entertainment of any kind.

Following Hussein's ouster last month, houses in Baghdad began to sprout satellite dishes. No one wants to depend on their neighbor to see foreign broadcasts. Everyone wants their own remote controls.

And while Iraqis often complain about a lack of money, many somehow find the cash for satellite television setups. A European-made satellite dish with all the necessary equipment costs about $250. Satellite gear from China costs around $150. The most popular television sets, Egyptian-made Toshibas, cost nearly $200 each.

Mehdi said he usually sells five to six pieces of satellite equipment each day and makes a profit of $20 per unit. His shop also sells all kinds of electrical equipment -- from light bulbs to air conditioners.

Mehdi said the former authorities in Iraq used to confiscate satellite dishes and fine their owners $200. Such fines also attracted the attention of Hussein's omnipresent secret services.

Firas is an owner of the Al-Ajraas shop, which is just several meters from Abu Medhi's store. His shop has three employees and sells only satellite gear. Firas said he sells about 20 units in his shop each day.

He said people in Baghdad mainly watch Arabic channels. They like these channels, he said, but notes they have few alternatives. While they can watch BBC television, they can't tune in to CNN or Fox News from the U.S. without buying an expensive decoder. "No. It's coded, and it doesn't work on our system," he said. "If you want to see it, you should pay money for a card. We don't have them here. Until now, we do not have cards." Firas said a decoder card, or "smart card," costs more than $100 each, and that few people want to pay the extra money.

Muhaned, a man in his 30s, came to Firas's shop to buy a satellite TV setup. He said he wants to watch the news, not just entertainment programs. "I want the news and the events which are happening in Iraq. I would like to watch Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi [television], CNN. However, [CNN] is coded," he said.

Abas Marhun has a slightly different business. He has been making and assembling satellite equipment in his garage in Baghdad since 1991. He is continuing to work with his teenage son and said he manages to compete with the satellite shops selling all-imported equipment. He said he built a good reputation over the past decade and that people know his work.

Marhun said he operated under difficult conditions when Hussein was in power. "Yes, I made [satellite gear] but closed the door [when I worked]. I made it inside here, in the garage, and no one see it. After midnight, I put the dish into the car -- a pickup or a lorry -- and sent it to a client," he said.

He said a friend once warned him that the police were interested in his business. He said he managed to hide all of his equipment and evade arrest.