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.
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.