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.
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.
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.