WASHINGTON -- "The number you have called cannot be connected." Ever heard a recording like that on your telephone? On 9/11, messages like that were commonplace in New York and Washington -- and incredibly frustrating for first responders trying to coordinate rescue operations and families attempting to contact loved ones. Now think about that kind of message being heard by virtually every cell phone subscriber in an entire country. That may be about to happen in Iraq. If it does, it could well derail progress made in recent months and have long-term adverse consequences for U.S. interests in the region.
In December 2003, less than eight months after the liberation of Baghdad, two new Iraqi telecommunications companies, Atheer and Iraqna, boldly began erecting cell towers and selling commercial cell phones and service in central and southern Iraq. In short order, everyone who could get his hands on a cell phone was buying one. Most never even had seen or used a "hard-wired" telephone. For Iraqis, cell phones quickly became vital to commerce and security. It was, in the words of an Iraqi soldier I interviewed, a "cellular revolution."
But of course, Iraq is not exactly a tranquil environment. As Atheer and Iraqna built more than 1,300 cell towers and installed generators and satellite transceivers, the facilities became targets for al-Qaida and other radical Islamic terror groups. To protect their expensive installations, the communications companies hired an independent security contractor with armed guards -- more than 7,000 of them. As is commonplace in Iraq, the security contractor negotiated with local sheiks and tribal, political and religious leaders to enhance protection for the towers and equipment; and it worked. The cellular companies flourished, and in January this year, the companies merged and were acquired by Zain, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mobile Telecommunications Company KSC, a Kuwaiti shareholding company traded on the Kuwait Stock Exchange.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.