Baghdad, Oct. 6 (Reuters): Iraq’s US-led government awarded licences today for firms to set up mobile phone networks, rebuffing calls by some American lawmakers to use US-backed technology to restore war-shattered communications.
Iraqi communications minister Haidar al-Ebadi said Iraq’s three regional networks would use the GSM system, already adopted across West Asia. US-backed technology is based on the CDMA system.
The licences are among the most potentially lucrative and high-profile contracts to be offered in post-war Iraq. A functioning national phone system, which Iraq has lacked since Saddam Hussein was toppled in April, could also allow guerrillas fighting the US-led occupation of Iraq to organise themselves better on a national level. The US army says guerrilla groups are only locally organised at present. Iraq did not have a public mobile phone network during Saddam’s rule and much of the land-line network was destroyed in the war that overthrew the former dictator.
“Until now, we were denied mobile phones. Iraqis will welcome the chance to use mobile phones to talk to their family, friends and for business purposes,” Ebadi said, adding that the first person he would call would be his mother. The new networks — expected to be running within weeks according to Ebadi — will be a boost for businesses and government ministries which have been struggling to function in a country where only satellite phones can be relied on.
Asked if US intelligence services would monitor mobile phone traffic, Ebadi said: “I would be very reluctant to do that.” He said he had already signed a decree banning the tapping of phone calls, and added that a functioning mobile system would make Iraq more secure, not less. All three winning consortia included Iraqi businessmen as well as Arab telecoms firms. The northern network will be run by a Kurdish firm that already set up a network in areas autonomous from Saddam’s rule, in partnership with Kuwaiti firm Wataniya.
Kuwait’s MTC is a member of the consortium that won the southern licence, and Egypt’s Orascom Telecommunications leads the consortium running the key Baghdad and central Iraq network. The choice of Kuwaiti companies to help run the phone network is a controversial one in a country where many Iraqis still resent their small southern neighbour after years of tension.