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Fear, petty details slow Iraq hi-tech comms drive

Fear, petty details slow Iraq hi-tech comms drive
Fear, petty details slow Iraq hi-tech comms drive 

By Deepa Babington
November 24, 2005

KHAN BANI SAAD, Iraq (Reuters) - Newly fitted with the latest
communications equipment, a U.S.-Iraqi coordination office north of
Baghdad was ready to connect with similar facilities all over the
country at the touch of a button.

Instead, the U.S. contractor who installed the network returned a few
days later to find that Iraqi officials had covered the brand new
equipment in plastic and left it untouched, afraid of mishandling and
ruining it.

"I kept trying to call them and I was baffled as to why I couldn't get
through," said James, a contractor hired by the U.S. military to set
up the coordination office, who declined to give his last name. "They
were just afraid of breaking it."

As the United States tries to bring greater sophistication to Iraqi
police and army communications -- an essential tool in battling the
insurgency -- it is finding that the latest foreign technology from
around the world gets bogged down by quirks in local custom and petty
hierarchies in Iraq's bureaucracy.

Connecting joint U.S.-Iraqi coordination centers through a secure
private network is part of a broader effort by the United States to
get officials across Iraq to share intelligence and other essential
information quickly and confidentially.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the centers have
communicated through patchy radio or Voice over Internet phones and
used the Yahoo! email service to exchange reports.

The centers needed a more reliable method of sharing information, but
as the U.S. contractor found out, there is more to it than simply
installing the latest technology and handing out instruction manuals.

"I guess for them this is going from barely crawling to running," he
said, as a convoy of Humvees trundled through town to escort him to a
center that needed help using the Internet.

In one instance, the contractor said he gave a list of 200 key contact
numbers to an official at one center, expecting it to be posted around
the facility so that everyone on the staff could have the numbers at
their fingertips.

Instead, the official kept the list to himself -- apparently in an
effort to hold on to the small amount of power it allowed him to wield
over the rest of the staff.


Training local officials is another challenge. James trained some
workers at one center, but they didn't share that knowledge with
anyone else on the staff, he said.

In a makeshift training session at a barren center in the small town
of Khan Bani Saad north of Baghdad on Wednesday, it was clear Iraqi
officials there had a steep learning curve ahead of them.

Six of them huddled over a new computer with paper clipboards as the
U.S. contractor tried to explain through an interpreter how to use a
new virtual private network.

One Iraqi worker clicked furiously on the icon to launch the
application, while others struggled to type out an email. The training
began over from scratch.

"The subject of an email should give you an idea of the rest of the
email," James, the contractor, explained, as the Iraqis nodded. "It
should be short and descriptive."

Emails that look as if they contain sensitive information should be
reported at once to the head of the center, he said. Innocuous looking
messages from Najaf or Mosul could be deleted.

Despite his staff's limited know-how, the head of the center, Colonel
Mohsen Abbas, was happy about the new equipment and the computing
wizardry it promised.

"Earlier they had old computers and another problem was some of the
guys didn't know how to work those computers," said Abbas, who
received a private tutorial afterwards. "This new computer is amazing
for me."

=A9 2005 Reuters

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