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Wednesday, 1 May, 2002, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Surfing the net in Iraq
Iraqi woman in an internet centre in Baghdad
There are now 26 internet centres across Iraq
test hello test
Kim Ghattas
By Kim Ghattas
in Iraq
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The first thing you are told when you walk into an internet centre as a foreigner in Baghdad is - don't use your own e-mail account.

Access to websites such as Hotmail is barred and trying to sneak into a personal e-mail account through any website is a challenge.

Kadhimain shrine in Baghdad
For Iraqis, even censored internet access is better than none
All computers face away from the wall, and officials from the government's internet department pace up and down the room.

If you are caught, panicked officials immediately shut down your computer.

Censorship

Introduced almost two years ago, the internet service in Iraq is heavily censored and e-mail access is only possible through the government provided service.

But for Iraqis, even censored internet is better than none.

"It's easier now to contact everybody, to read about things, about Iraq," said Hassan Rubayaa, a businessman who is delighted he can make contacts without paying prohibitive phone and fax bills.

"You can even get information about Iraq from the internet. For example, university students use the internet to get the latest research.

"My daughter needed some information on cancer research, so we came here and she took it to her university."

Embargo

Crippled by 12 years of sanctions, Iraq looks like it is stuck in the 1980s.

Most Iraqi students are still using books dating from before the embargo.

Doctors complain that their techniques are outdated and beg foreign visitors for medical magazines.

Universities that used to order thousands of books every year for their libraries from Europe and the US before the embargo now manage to get only a couple of hundred a year, mostly from Arab countries.
Internet user
Home access to the internet is not on offer in Iraq

But slowly, thanks to the internet, Iraqis feel they are in touch with the world again.

Today, there are 26 internet centres, as they are called here, across the country.

On average 200 people a day visit internet centres such as the one on Saadoun street in the centre of Baghdad, where Mr Rubayaa was busy sending an e-mail message to one of his recent business contacts.

No home access

Each message sent costs 12 US cents but those who can afford it can get a $50 yearly subscription for an e-mail address from the government e-mail service.

Internet access at home is not on offer yet.

Foreign IT consultants in Baghdad say this is because the government has not yet mastered the use of the internet censoring software.

One hour of web surfing at the internet centres costs $1, but even this is too expensive for most Iraqis.

The government is the largest employer and an average civil servant's salary is about $5 a month.

Rana Sabah, 24, works as a secretary at a private company and was able to save money to buy a $450 Pentium III computer.

"I took a course to learn how to use a computer," she says.

She struggles with the bill as well as with her English as she browses the net. "It's important to learn as much possible before the embargo is lifted and Iraq joins the rest of the world," she adds.

Fast connection

Computers from the Pentium IV generation are also widely available and relatively cheap in Baghdad.

The internet connection is surprisingly fast, apparently thanks to recently laid fibre optic cables.

Both the computers and the cables are items that are not approved for entry into Iraq by the UN under the sanctions.

Most goods that are banned by the UN sanctions committee are described as dual use items, meaning they could be used in the making of weapons.

But, thanks to a growing number of free trade agreements signed with its neighbours, Iraq is managing to bypass the sanctions more and more effectively.

Goods imported through these agreements are not controlled at the border checkpoints.

This is the fifth in a series of features from inside Iraq by Kim Ghattas for BBC News Online.

See also:

25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Iraqis seek refuge in religion
24 Apr 02 | Middle East
Iraq's middle class wiped out
23 Apr 02 | Middle East
Business as usual in Iraq
22 Apr 02 | Middle East
Iraq 'moving up anti-aircraft missiles'
19 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN condemns Iraq on human rights
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Iraq postpones UN talks
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Iraq vows to defy Western 'enemy'
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