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Iraq: Baghdad Opens First Internet Center

The first Internet center has just opened in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, offering Iraqis the opportunity to send e-mails to friends and relatives around the world and receive information from a wide range of sources -- something that was impossible under the regime of Saddam Hussein. RFE/RL reports from Baghdad.

Baghdad, 30 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hay Adel, or Zone of Justice, is a place that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago in Baghdad. It is Baghdad's first professional Internet center, allowing Iraqis a first-ever chance to freely communicate with the outside world via the Internet.

Although a few small Internet businesses exist in the Iraqi capital, they often have old computers and charge prohibitive fees -- over $4 an hour. Hay Adel, by contrast, has more than 40 new computers, a fast satellite connection, and charges just over $1 an hour.

The center is already doing a booming business. Most of the customers are looking to get in touch with family members living outside Iraq.

Saad, a man in his 20s, says he was using the Internet to contact his uncle living in Moscow. "[I came here] to send an e-mail to my uncle because I don't have his phone number. So it's the only way I can be in touch with him, through the Internet?"

Hay Adel was started by a group of 30 engineers employed in the Internet department of the Telecommunications and Transport Ministry. The center is officially a state-owned company, using computers and equipment from the ministry.

Ala Harth, a member of the group, says he and his friends safeguarded the equipment in their homes to avoid theft by looters. The computers left behind -- along with most of the ministry's equipment -- are long gone.

Harth says the ministry's Internet department was the sole Internet provider before the fall of Saddam Hussein and had some 15,000 subscribers. Now, he says, it is too early to talk about re-building a subscribers list because so many of the country's telephone lines have been damaged.

There is not a computer game in sight at Hay Adel. Yassyr is another young Internet user trying to make contact with family members abroad.

"I'm one of them. My brothers are in the UAE [United Arab Emirates]. I make contact with them through e-mail. It's a good thing," Yassyr says.

The Hay Adel staff said they faced resistance from officials at the ministry, who were opposed to the idea of an Internet center and who did not do enough to prevent equipment from being stolen during the looting that followed Baghdad's fall. Harth says he is dismayed that most of the senior officials at the ministry have retained their jobs despite the fact they were all appointed by Hussein.

"The regime will be the same, [only] Saddam Hussein is out of it. But we will be oppressed by another person and the same system will go on, the same corrupted system, actually, if we are keeping the same old people [in their positions]," Harth says.

Hussein's presence is still felt at the Internet center, where monitors are programmed to show a portrait of the deposed leader as the computer is booting up. An employee at the center says it will take time to strip computer software of every trace of the former Iraqi president.

For now, the most oppressive element of Hussein's rule has been eliminated -- the restrictions on Internet access. Hay Adel staffer Muhammad Rafik says the former regime placed strict controls on Internet access, and prohibited the vast majority of sites.

"They [said they] concentrated on this subject -- porno. [But access was denied to] free e-mail and some sites that were [considered to be] propaganda for the resistance. It was really primitive," Rafik says.

Not all Internet sites can be reached even now. Rafik says pornography sites remain inaccessible -- because, as he puts it, "pornography is morally bad."