Hard to Phone in Baghdad as U.S. Bombs Exchanges
Sun March 30, 2003 01:13 PM ET
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqis are finding it almost impossible to make a phone call as U.S. air raids destroy a telecommunications network that took them
years and hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild after the last Gulf War.
Despite being under international sanctions since 1990, Iraq managed to revamp its telephone network, finishing the job shortly before the start of
this month's U.S.-led attack.
Four telephone exchanges in Baghdad that were rebuilt after the 1991 Gulf War have been destroyed so far. Although there are around 20 exchanges in
the Iraqi capital, the centers that were hit were pivotal in the network, an Iraqi engineer said.
Huge "bunker buster" bombs dug craters around the main telephone exchange center near a presidential palace and a back-up facility in the city
center was destroyed.
"It is impossible to tell the extent of damage to the network, but it is extensive," the Iraqi engineer said.
"The best way to contact someone now is to go see them. I visited three relatives today under bombardment to make sure they are OK," he said.
A few months ago, a Chinese company finished refurbishing the telephone network and installing new exchanges, making international calls easy.
Payphones were set up around Iraq that operated via pre-paid "smart" cards, similar to the system used in France and other European countries.
The ease of communication proved short-lived. Iraqis now are cut off from a Diaspora numbering millions, and with the main highways to Jordan and
Syria effectively a theater of war, going abroad is fraught with danger.
With diplomats fleeing Baghdad before the war started on March 20, journalists covering the conflict have became a rare conduit to the outside
"Iraqis are calling me on the satellite phone from Beirut to ask if I can make sure that their families are okay," said Najaw Kassem, a reporter for
Lebanon's Future Television.
COMMAND AND CONTROL
The U.S. raids on communication centers are relentless, although their impact on President Saddam Hussein's command and control ability -- their
ostensible purpose -- is unknown.
A missile hit Baghdad's Azamiyah telephone exchange two days ago, but the building sustained only partial damage. U.S. warplanes returned to finish
it off at dawn on Sunday.
The building's walls collapsed, filling the street with yellow bricks, as the blast blew open doors and shattered glass in neighboring houses.
Most people in the neighborhood had already fled when the bombs fell. Iraqis who live near infrastructure buildings have learned to stay away from
their homes during the night and early morning -- times when bombardment is more frequent.
"Tell me why (U.S. President George W.) Bush is doing this. Does he accept if we do the same to his homeland?" shouted one black-shrouded woman who
came to check that her brother had not been hurt in Azamiyah.
In the Salhiyeh area on the River Tigris, another exchange serving thousands of subscribers was also destroyed early on Sunday.
Journalists who arrived just after the fire had been put out found that a sign had survived on the building.
It read: "If you experience a fault on the line, call the complaint center at 131."