BAGHDAD, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Rounding a corner to discover an Internet cafe in Iraq is a pleasant surprise indeed -- and then one actually tries to use it.
A foreign correspondent, arriving in Baghdad to cover the Iraqi crisis with the United Nations and a looming U.S. war, rushed into one of those cafes relieved that she secured a connection with the outside world.
"I sat behind one of the computers in the cafe and confidently logged in to connect my e-mail," the reporter said. A message appeared on the screen: "Access denied."
While to hope is human, to control is Iraqi, and Internet access in Saddam Hussein's tightly managed and monitored country is as centralized as most of its other services.
Internet service was first introduced to the Baath Party-ruled Arab nation in early 2000 and was limited to government institutions, universities, medical doctors, university professors and students preparing their master's or doctoral degrees. But it soon began to spread because of growing demand by Iraqis eager to discover the new technology.
"It was an attraction for all ages: children, teenagers, men of different professions, women and elderly," said a worker at a Baghdad Internet cafe who gave his name only as Jassem. "All wanted to see this new world."
Jassem, a computer sciences graduate, himself learned how navigate the Web in college when he was completing his bachelor's degree nine years ago.
"We used disks containing Internet programs to learn how to access the Internet and open sites," because they couldn't actually go online in those days, he said.
Today, Internet users in Iraq number an estimated 22,000 and growing daily. Still, in a country of 22 million that offers a relatively cheap subscription of some $100 a year, that isn't many. And while Iraqis can buy a good computer assembled locally for about $600, many prefer to use one of the 60-odd Internet cafes that sprinkle the Iraqi capital and other cities. After more than a decade of U.N. sanctions, triggered by Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait, Iraqis have more pressing needs for which to stretch their dinars.
Besides, Internet at home is subject to the same restrictions and control as public terminals. So what's a typical surfing session like in Iraq?
"Each one is interested in the Internet his own special way," said Jassem. "The youngsters love the Internet games while teenagers are more into music and especially love to follow up the news and pictures of their Western stars."
Yahoo! and Hotmail, highly popular sites in most of the world for their extensive services such as shopping, reference, personals and chat rooms, are among the blocked sites in Iraq. Naturally, one can expect the authorities to block any Web page providing political and other sensitive news as well.
But strangely, the Google search site popped up just fine, for example.
When asked why certain "harmless" Internet sites are being blocked, Jassem self-consciously replied, "Yes, it's true that some sites are banned and could not be accessed. But it's because they contain materials that violate (rules of social) decency and religion."
He further explained that sites could be blocked "due to technical problems or for being linked to other sites." But Jassem himself didn't seem convinced, and grew rapidly unwilling to pursue a dialogue that could shift easily into a political discussion.
Another more open Iraqi, who still asked that United Press International not use his name, advised: "Don't bother to understand. There is no logic behind it. It depends on the mood of the employee controlling the sites."
In fact, Iraq employs some 400 to 500 people to run the government-owned Internet network and the special Internet cafes.
"This large number of employees, compared to the number of users, is for controlling and censoring the Internet," said an Iraqi engineer living in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. "Their main headache is to make people access the 'right information' and this consumes about 60 percent of their time."
The engineer, who also asked not be identified, said the employees exert much effort to "monitor undesirable channels and sites in order to block them."
"It's a 24-hour effort but it's a process that's almost impossible to control," he explained. "There are already hundreds of thousands of Internet sites in the world and there are new ones every day."
Foreign journalists using the Internet facilities at the al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad have likely given Iraqi Internet employees even more work to handle, for virtually each is using a different site -- many probably unknown to the Iraqis so far.
U.S. intelligence services may also add to that headache. In recent weeks, hundreds of e-mail messages have reportedly been sent to Baghdad residents encouraging them to prepare themselves for revolt and to assist U.S. forces in ousting Saddam. Iraqi authorities apparently took immediate action to block their spread, but some messages seem to have gotten through to Baghdad inboxes.
Despite its many restrictions, the Internet is one of the very few accesses to the outside world for the Iraqis.
Satellite dishes are forbidden and Iraqis can only watch the official Iraqi television stations, including the Ash Shabab TV run by Saddam's son Uday. It broadcasts some Western movies -- supposedly a fascination of Saddam's -- as well as taped programs and news from Qatar's Al Jazeera TV, Abu Dhabi TV and Egypt's Dream TV. On the radio Iraqis can listen to the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Arabic service.