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Iraqi Electronics Shops Report Swift Business - 2003-05-13


Under President Saddam Hussein, it was illegal for Iraqis to own satellite dishes and receive foreign television broadcasts. Now that he's gone, there's a booming business catering to the needs of an information-starved public.

Most businesses in Iraq are still closed, more than a month after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. But the electronics shops on the main commercial avenues of Baghdad report brisk sales of satellite television equipment.

The shops set up dishes on the sidewalk to entice customers to come in and buy the equipment.

Among the shoppers is a 26-year-old aluminum plant worker named Mohammed Ali. Mr. Ali said he cannot wait to get his own dish after watching satellite television at a friend's home. He said access to foreign broadcasts was forbidden under Saddam Hussein.

"All dishes, all satellites used to be not allowed to set it in your houses," said Mohammed Ali. "Now people like to get it. To buy it. Because in the past the state television showed only what the state wanted people to see."

Films, songs and the news about his country are among the programs Mr. Ali says he enjoys. He doesn't know what's going on in the north and the south. He knows these all through the other channels. So he needs satellites, he needs channels to see, to understand what is going on in his country.

The satellite dish phenomenon is helping to fill an information void for Iraqis trying to figure out what is going on in their country after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

For the first time, Iraqi satellite dish owners can get news about Iraq from the pan-Arab al-Jazeera channel, and from Iran's al-Alam network, which is beaming an Arabic-language feed aimed at Iraq's majority Shi'ite community.

The broadcasts are not always favorable toward the American occupation, and U.S. officials say they need to start communicating directly to the Iraqi people.

The U.S. reconstruction office for Iraq plans to launch a television station and a newspaper in Baghdad this week. Officials say the primary objective is to provide Iraqis basic information about restoring essential services, and there will be no political content or editorials. A coalition forces radio station is broadcasting Arabic-language news to the capital region from the Baghdad airport.

The owner of Akram Electronic Store, Akram Abu Thomas, says he is irritated that people are demanding satellite equipment when there is no reliable supply of electricity, and many people are afraid to leave their homes. He has some advice for American officials in Iraq.

"We need only one thing, the safety. Al-aman, the safety," he said. "Let America take all the money, all the oil. If America leaves the country the chaos will start again."

His brother Sami agrees. He says Iraqis don't need foreign broadcasts to tell them things are a mess in their country right now. And after three decades under Saddam Hussein, he says, Iraqis just want peace.