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Tomorrow Today

Iraq sidelined from information superhighway

rubble
War and sanctions have crippled Iraq's communication network   

January 7, 1999
Web posted at: 7:25 p.m. EST (0025 GMT)

(CNN) -- The Internet is spreading its tendrils throughout the Arab world, but so far it hasn't reached Iraq -- a country without e-mail and without Web sites originating within its borders.

Iraqi Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon says war and years of sanctions have left Iraq's communications system in terrible shape, and that few computer components can enter the country.

Iraq would like to connect its citizens to the wired world, but sanctions make that impossible, Hamdoon said.

"This is essential for the people in this age to try to open up to information and get access to all the data that are available," he said.

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But human rights activist Eric Goldstein called Hamdoon's statement "disingenuous."

Iraqi leaders would never tolerate the free exchange of ideas that the Internet makes possible, Goldstein said.

Iraq -- where it's illegal even to own a computer modem -- has one of the most repressive governments in the region, Goldstein said.

"The Internet is the natural enemy of this kind of intolerance," he said.

Hamdoon recently sent a letter to Goldstein declaring that freedom of opinion is guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution. The letter also blamed the destruction of the Gulf War for Iraq's isolation from the Internet.

But Goldstein isn't convinced it's all economics.

"If Iraq had the will, they could have the Internet set up in spite of the sanctions," he said. (Audio 374 K/09 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Iraq's only official Web site -- www.iraqi-mission.org -- originates from its U.N. mission in New York.

But many sites share the voices of Iraqis living in other parts of the world. Groups like the Arab American Action Network in Chicago use the Web to disseminate whatever information they can gather.

abunimah
Abunimah represents the Arab American Action Network   

"The Internet has provided ordinary people with an opportunity to get their story out to the world," said Ali Abunimah, a spokesman for the group. "The most open societies in the Middle East have the most Internet usage, like Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian areas. Other countries, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, are lagging, but they are starting to catch up." (Audio 747 K/17 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

While that hasn't happened yet in Iraq, Ambassador Hamdoon says there are plans for some Internet access.

"There is an effort to try to establish some uplinks that could provide us with a way of connection, at least for the universities," he says.

But after years of crippling sanctions, Iraqi leaders say people are more worried about finding their next meal than surfing the Net.

Correspondent Marsha Walton contributed to this report.

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