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Wired world of Iraqi Kurds

BBC News, Wednesday 15 August 2001, 07:28 GMT 08:28 UK

In a region devastated by war, the BBC's Hiwa Osman found the Kurds of northern Iraq surprisingly connected to the wired world, as he reports in the second of four features.

In the vibrant city of Sulaymaniyah, I was able to easily check my e-mails and surf the web on a state-of-the-art computer, all for the moderately inexpensive rate of $1.50 per hour.

For $50 a month, I can have unlimited access to the internet at home, once we get a digital line, said a student in the centre, who was holding an audio and video chat with his sister in Canada.

This would have been unheard of less than 10 years ago.

The Gulf War in 1991 left the region's communications infrastructure in tatters.

Contacting other Iraqi cities and the outside world was virtually impossible.

But Iraqi Kurds have managed to break out of their isolation by entering the digital world.

Cyber Kurds

Making an extraordinary leap, they have turned to satellite communications and the internet to replace the local network.

Sulaymaniyah, a city of 500,000 people, has more than 20 satellite-linked centres for telephone, fax and internet.

The Kurdish region's three universities, two of which were established after the UN-backed sanctions on Iraq, are also connected to the internet.

Exchanging email addresses is the latest fashion in cities where it is not unusual to see a herd of sheep scrambling across a major roadway.

Mobile telephones

Sulaymaniyah also has a mobile telephone network that covers the city and its suburbs. There are plans to expand the network's coverage and install similar networks in other cities of the region.

International phone calls are easily made from mobile phones, using the UK dialling code and with a flat rate of 30 cents per minute.

The call-card-operated phones will soon have text messaging services as well, according to an engineer at KurdTel, the company that provides communication services for Sulaymaniyah.

Keeping up to date

The Kurdish authorities, which have been in power since 1991, have adopted a free-market-economy approach. Shops in the Kurdish region are stacked with goods brought from Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states.

Computers, scanners, digital cameras, DVD players and other electrical goods are widely available across the Kurdish region.

Kurdish music is now available on on CDs, DVDs and even as MP3 files. Playstation games are a big hit with children.

The latest design and desktop publishing software is used to produce a huge array of daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. Most are also available on the internet.

Satellite connection

Satellite TV is becoming a basic necessity in every Kurdish house.

The long-isolated Kurds now keep up-to-date with not only world news but with news from nearby cities that is not available through small local television stations.

You can bring the whole world to your living room for only $200 said Nawzad from Nawpirdan, a five-family village in the mountains near the Iranian border.

Kurds at home and in Europe stay in touch with Kurdish events through Kurdistan TV and KurdSat, which broadcast from Arbil and Sulaymaniyah respectively. The two satellite stations broadcast in Arabic and English in addition to two dialects of Kurdish.

Satellite TV and the internet are the new weapons in our struggle said Adnan Mufti, the deputy prime minister in Sulaymaniyah.

After overcoming the communication obstacles created with the switch to a digital phone system, I met Sherko Bekas, the eminent Kurdish poet and the head of the Sardam publishing house, to get his views on the impact of globalisation on the Kurds.

We have benefited a great deal from globalisation, Bekas said. Our enemies will not be able to oppress us as before. We just have to strike a balance between being part of the modern world and keeping our identity.