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Iraq Opens First Internet Cafe

July 27, 2000

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ The Iraqi government opened the country’s first Internet cafe on Thursday in an attempt to provide its isolated people with a glimpse of what is happening in the outside world.

Patrons of the Internet cafe in Baghdad will be allowed to browse Web sites that have been government-screened to assure they do not violate ``the precepts of Islamic religion″ or offend ``morals and ethics,″ Iraq’s transport and communications minister, Ahhmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil, said.

But no matter how restricted, the cafe is a bold step in a country where satellite dishes and modems are banned and special permission is needed even to install a fax.

Iraq’s media is controlled by a combination of self-censorship and a tight state grip on the flow of information. Radio and television stations are state-run and newspapers are sponsored by the ruling party _ and all conform to government policy.

The sole provider of Internet services in Iraq is the Ministry of Culture and Information; access until now had been restricted to government use.

Khalil said similar cafes will be opened elsewhere in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, and he vowed to enact measures to help Iraq catch up in Internet technology. President Saddam Hussein has ordered a university be set up to deal exclusively with computer technology so Iraqis can keep abreast of advances.

Private entrepreneurs are not allowed to set up Internet cafes and citizens with home computers still cannot have a direct link. But using terminals at the cafe, Iraqis can now set up their own private e-mail addresses.

``Of course, we cannot sell and buy stocks through the cafe and we know that the whole operation is closely monitored, but it is a step in the right direction,″ said Leith, a browser who declined to give his full name.

The bright, air conditioned cafe charges $1 for each hour of computer use, a substantial sum in Iraq, where the monthly salary of a school teacher is about $3.

``It is our first outpost of information technology. I hope the authorities will not stop here,″ said Husam Kareem, who runs a computer shop in Baghdad.

Government officials blame U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Persian Gulf War, for the delay in setting up Internet access and a cellular phone network in the country.

Despite the sanctions, computer companies and related stores are sprouting up in Baghdad. Shops selling or renting compact discs have become so numerous authorities have begun requiring owners to register with the Information Ministry.

Computers and laptops with the latest Pentium processors are available, mostly via the United Arab Emirates. Iraq’s new class of computer entrepreneurs attributes its existence to the scrapping of customs duties on computer imports and lowered taxes on computer businesses.

Individuals, however, do not yet have the freedom to set up their own networking companies.