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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 February 2007, 12:24 GMT
Iraqis use internet to survive war
By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

Baghdad ariel view - Google Earth
Consulting Google Earth can help people work out routes to avoid
Google is playing an unlikely role in the Iraq war. Its online satellite map of the world, Google Earth, is being used to help people survive sectarian violence in Baghdad.

As the communal bloodshed has worsened, some Iraqis have set up advice websites to help others avoid the death squads.

One tip - on the Iraq League site, one of the best known - is for people to draw up maps of their local area using Google Earth's detailed imagery of Baghdad so they can work out escape routes and routes to block.

It's another example of the central role technology plays in the conflict - with the widespread use of mobile phones, satellite television as well as the internet - by all sides and for many purposes.

For some time now, vigilante-style guard forces have been operating in many neighbourhoods, especially in Sunni areas targeted by Shia militias.

Many Sunnis see the Shia-dominated police forces as just as much of a threat, because of evidence of their involvement in kidnappings.

So part of the job of the local guards is keeping them out.

With Google Earth, the Iraq League website suggests, people can also work out the most likely approach of their attackers.

It's thought that insurgents have also used the map site, examining the detailed images to pick out potential targets.

'Killed or tortured'

The advice on the Iraq League site - which is actually run from the UK - begins with a warning to avoid being taken in the first place.

"If they arrest you, you will be killed or tortured."

Iraqi army soldier searches a motorist in Baghdad
The key thing is not to fall into the wrong hands
The Iraq League says it is aimed at all Iraqis caught up in the violence, but it is slanted towards the Sunni community.

"If they tell you we just have a few questions and you will be back in an hour, don't believe them. You will be dead in an hour or disappear for months," the warning continues.

Who "they" are is rarely spelled out, apart from the occasional mention of Ministry of Interior patrols.

To avoid arrest, people should give security training to relatives, says the site. If they see any suspicious activity, they should ring the local guard force.

How to blend in

People must change their routes all the time. "You must get another ID," the site continues, with non-Sunni names.

Certain names, such as Abu Bakr or Omar are common among Sunnis - but can spell instant death in the hands of Shia death squads.

Anything to distinguish sectarian affiliation should be masked.

Long beards, traditionally associated with devout Sunnis, are out. Shia men keep beards much shorter.

Sunnis wanting to blend in should do the same, says the survival guide.

Other sites tell Sunnis how they can make people think they are Shia.

They are advised to hang images of well-known Shia figures in their homes and shops, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, or Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, whose death at Karbala in the 7th Century Shias mourn every year.

Appeals for help

The Iraq League website has another section displaying calls from relatives for information on missing loved ones.

This is used by both Sunnis and Shias. "Please help me to find my husband who was kidnapped travelling from Baghdad to Amman," says one message. "Gunmen seized him because he is a Shia, but they left my brother and his family because they are Sunni. Please help me."

But it happened more than six months ago.

There was also an offer of help to a girl injured in the eye by a mortar attack on her school in Baghdad in late January, an incident widely covered by the media.

"We can provide medical treatment outside Iraq," the writer said.

Perhaps initiatives like this could also begin the process of restoring peace. But right now, these sites are focused on survival.

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