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Baghdad Internet Cafes Gain in Popularity - 2003-06-29

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis have been enjoying some new freedoms. One of them is the freedom to use the Internet without government interference. It is a busy day at one of the new Internet cafés in Baghdad's Mansur neighborhood. Customers are surfing the net and sending e-mails on about half of the 10 computers.

British-Iraqi medical student Omar Abdul-Khader is sending an e-mail to his parents back in London. He says he also likes to use Internet chat services to have electronic "conversations" with his family.

"Chatting with my parents, it is cheaper than calling from London to here," he said. "It is a lot cheaper. Or for me calling to London, so it is a lot cheaper than that."

E-mail, web surfing and Internet chatrooms were almost unheard of in Iraq before the war. Saddam Hussein's government blocked access to many websites in an effort to control the information Iraqi citizens were getting from the outside world.

The Internet café's co-owner, Omran Chadirji, says the old government carefully monitored all e-mails going in or out of the country.

"You know, the Hotmail and Yahoo and these free e-mails - it was banned," said Mr. Chadirji. "So you could not open your own e-mail, only through the government. They had to see what is going and what is coming to you."

Under the Saddam Hussein regime, there were only a few Internet cafes in Baghdad, and they were either sanctioned by or run by the government. Now, entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the new situation by opening internet cafes all over town.

About 10 of them have opened so far, and it looks like more are on the way. Baghdad is dotted with banners and newspaper ads announcing, "New Internet Café, Coming Soon."

But there are certain logistical challenges for Iraqi Internet entrepreneurs. The city has no working telephone lines and only sporadic electricity service.

Mr. Chadirji said it cost quite a bit of money to get around those problems.

"This is through satellite," he explained. "The Internet is through satellite. ... It cost about - the system and the satellite - about $4,000."

That figure does not include the computers themselves, or their installation, or the rental of the building. Another problem presents itself just as Mr. Chadirji is speaking, when the lights suddenly go out and computer-backup systems start beeping.

"This is one thing, the electricity," he said. "It is a problem for us. But we have a generator, so to keep the work going. They will not lose their things because we have a UPS so everything is saved." Using the Internet is still not for everyone in Baghdad, mainly because of the cost. The customers pay about $2 an hour for the privilege. That is cheaper than in many countries, but still well beyond the means of most Iraqis.

Another customer in the Internet café hopes the end of Saddam Hussein's regime will allow Iraq to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to computer technology and knowledge.

Sarmad al-Bahrani says he has a computer science degree from an American university, but was unable to find a job working with computers when he came back to Iraq in 1991. The only option, he says, was working for the government.

"Now is different. Maybe it will be more easier for people to maneuver, to use computers, to put their knowledge in computers. There is lots of expansion now. I can see that," said Mr. al-Bahrani.

The co-owner of the Internet café, Mr. Chadirji, says he learned about computers while living in Jordan for the past six years. He did not study computers in school, he just learned through experience. It looks now like more Iraqis will have the chance to get that experience, too, without having to leave the country to do it.