Today Zain has more than 7 million customers and more than 3,000 direct employees in Iraq. It's one of the fastest-growing enterprises in the world. The company's Iraqi network spans 15,000 square kilometers, including most of the country's population. It has proved so dependable that it is used extensively by every U.S. and allied entity -- including our military units -- operating "in-country." Our Fox News embed teams have relied consistently on their cellular system because they have "roaming" agreements with more than 300 operators in more than 130 countries. In short, the cell phone has become ubiquitous -- and essential for civilian, government and military communications in Iraq. That could well disappear in the next three weeks, however, all because of a business dispute.
When Zain acquired the Iraqi cell phone system, the Kuwaiti-owned corporation decided not to retain the security company that has been protecting the cellular facilities, and a contract dispute ensued. Now the Iraqi-owned security company says if the matter is not resolved by May 13, it will remove its 7,000 highly trained, well-armed security personnel. At that point, you don't need an active imagination to envision what would happen to the cellular system in central and southern Iraq. It's happening already in Afghanistan.
The U.S. Marine contingent that recently deployed to Kandahar quickly found that the Afghan cellular system was the No. 1 target for the Taliban. Terrorist attacks on cell phone towers and the engineers who maintain and repair the installations have curtailed service to nearly a quarter-million subscribers in southern Afghanistan. The damage and destruction of cell phone facilities has had an immediate adverse effect on commerce -- and seriously degraded intelligence collection on the enemy.
Therein is the problem for Iraq. The cellular network -- now owned by Zain -- is an essential part of Iraqi commerce and coalition intelligence and military operations. Without continuity in security, the system could well go offline May 14. Yet since the contract dispute between Zain and the Iraqi security contractor first emerged in January, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has been inexplicably absent from efforts to resolve the matter. A retired American intelligence officer with a lot of experience in Iraq put it bluntly: "This is a disaster in the making. If the Iraqi mobile telephone network collapses, we face civil upheaval across the country, a destabilized economy, lost intelligence, and ultimately, lost U.S. and Iraqi lives to restore the capability."
This need not happen. Contract disputes eventually are resolved in courts of law, but that can take years. It's not too late to bring the parties together for a meeting at the Baghdad embassy to work out a modus vivendi so that this one doesn't blow up in the next three weeks. Ambassador Crocker, call your office -- while you still can.
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.