Adam Davidson is an American reporter who has been in Baghdad for many months, and in his 'spare time' helped start Iraq's first LUG. We sent him your questions last week, and he's replied in great detail, not only about the LUG itself but also with a rare 'geek's eye view' of daily life in Baghdad, and comments about how the Iraqi IT infrastructure (and laws controlling it) are being (re)built.
1) Computer density in Iraq - by MajorDick
What is the density per capita of PC type computers in Iraq ? I mean how many people even own computers ? What is the average computer available for use in Iraq ?
It's impossible to get accurate statistics for pretty much anything in Iraq. But I've found that most middle-class families do have a computer. Middle-class in Iraq means the senior bread-winner makes anywhere from $100 to $600 per month. Many businesses have computers. And there are Internet cafes that have sprung up all over the country and are wildly popular. So, most people who want to are able to use a computer as often as they'd like. The computers available are surprisingly up-to-date. Sana'a Street, the main computer shopping area, has dozens and dozens of computer shops where you'll find almost everything you'd need: late-model P4 or AMD CPUs. Decent motherboards, even raid, good hard-drives, some decent soundcards, etc. Good printers from HP, etc. There are a lot of low-end brands as well as the well-known ones. You can get most of the gadgets you'd like: USB memory keys, digital cameras, portable harddrives, flat screens, whatever. And anything you want that's not in stock can be shipped in from Dubai in a week or so. The prices are far cheaper than in any other Arab country I've been to.
Most Iraqis have their desktop or tower computers assembled locally, from imported parts, of course. But you can buy full HP systems and a few other brands. It's also easy to buy pretty current laptops. A basic system--AMD, 256MB RAM, 40gig HD, is around $400. I just bought a fully loaded system for less than $1500.
I go to Sana'a street pretty often and it is always completely packed with people buying computer systems and parts. There is so much pent-up demand for so many things. Under the previous regime, import tariffs were so high that everything cost twice what it would elsewhere. Now, it's so cheap. And while many Iraqis are miserably poor, many others are benefiting from the current situation and are buying not only computers but their first washing machines, satellite TV systems, microwave ovens, and on and on.
2) Encryption - by onyxruby
For years strict encryption rules were an issue for Iraq. Has the US now stopped it's encryption restrictions for Iraq or do you simply get your crypto from elsewhere?
I don't know too much about this. I'd check out Don Marti's coverage of the issue at LinuxJournal. But there is no regulation of software in Iraq now. There are tons of shops that burn you anything you want for about a buck a CD. I downloaded US-crypto here, because I'm a US citizen working for a US-based radio show and I figure I'm entitled. But I don't think Iraqis would even know what restrictions exist or have any idea how to follow them. That being said, security and crypto issues are not big concerns here. Most Iraqis just don't know much about them, since they're less than a year into using the internet freely. Under Saddam, of course, there was massive government restriction on what could be accessed and what crypto could be used.
3) What will the Iraqi government use? - by rueger
I'm presuming that any government computer infrastructure has been destroyed, and that they will be more or less starting from scratch.
Am I correct in assuming that Microsoft is in there big time locking down contracts to rebuild government computing sytems?
In the massive looting after the war, pretty much the entire computer infrastructure of the government was stolen. I'm friends with the head of IT for the Ministry of Trade (one of the biggest users of computers in Iraq) and he told me that he had recently purchased 30,000 desktop workstations. Every single one was looted. So, yes, they're starting from scratch. My friend, the MoT IT guy, says he wants to deploy Linux. From what he knows, he thinks it's a much better fit for Iraq. It's cheap, adaptable, has good Arabic support. But he just doesn't know enough about Linux, since it was all but unknown in Iraq during Saddam's regime. I find that is typical--when I explain Linux to just about any Iraqi, they get it quickly and want it. Any company or ministry that had a server most likely used Unix and now wants to switch to Linux. And there is great interest in desktop Linux.
I know the guy who is Microsoft's sole agent in Iraq. He's actually a nice guy, lives down the block from me. He's having a very hard time. They are not as powerful here as you'd expect. First of all, since all software--including M$--costs a buck a CD, it's pretty much impossible to convince anyone that they should pay thousands of dollars for systems. Also, there is a general suspicion of large foreign corporations coming in and gobbling up Iraqi assets. So, people in the know are more excited about Linux. That being said, few Iraqis even know that there are operating systems other than M$. I've found exactly one Iraqi who has heard of Apple, and maybe a few dozen who've heard of Linux. So, just letting people know there is an alternative is a big issue.
The US occupational government, the Coalition Provisional Authority, uses M$ desktops and servers, as does the US-appointed Interim Governing Council. Most ministries are now using DOS systems. But the ministries are largely able to purchase things like hardware and software completely independently of the US. The Iraqi government has a budget this year of something around $12 billion and they choose how it's spent. The US government has made the decision not to alter the ministries too much. It's too much work in the short time before the handover of power to a sovereign government at the end of June. And the CPA is so overworked and out-of-touch with day-to-day issues at the ministries that I don't think they could force a M$ deployment even if they wanted to.
I do assume, though, that without any counter-pressure, the new Iraqi government will use M$ by default.
4) Can we help you in some way? - by herrvinny
Can we help you in some way? Old computers, networking equipment, webspace, etc?
The Iraqi LUG has received several generous offers of support. I'd say that old computer equipment is not helpful, because so much new stuff is available so cheaply. They also don't need any more distributions. several people have sent distros, and I've become a one-man distro download center, since I have pretty fast DSL (believe it or not) and have been downloading the major distros and giving them to the iLug.
What the iLug needs most is:
3. Technical help.
The amazing iLug has some ambitious and exciting plans. They are planning to open a Linux Users Center in May. A generous ex-pat Iraqi living in London will donate space and some money to set up a place that can have a dozen or more Linux machines. It will be in a prominent location and will offer free or very cheap internet access, to lure people in. There will be trainings, tech support, meetings, to build up the base of knowledgeable Linux users. The space is centrally located and will, I'm certain, be extremely popular. Before the center is opened, the iLug is distributing one-page fact sheets in Arabic along with a CD of MandrakeMove to introduce Iraqis to Linux. They're handing these out on college campuses and on Sana'a street. I'm also hoping the iLug gets enough money so that its two directors, Ashraf Tariq and Hasanen Nawfal, can go on staff. These two guys are so impressive, so smart, ambitious, eager. But, like all Iraqis, they need to make a living. So, if there could be, say $500 a month for each of them, they could devote themselves full-time to Linux advocacy. That would be so wonderful. In their off hours--handing out distros and evangelizing--they've brought the membership of the iLug up from two to 70 in a couple months; it would be thrilling to see what they could do if they worked at it full time. The iLug also wants to create packages of information, along with copies of distributions, to hand out to IT decision makers at the ministries and private companies. So, a few bucks can go along way towards creating a well-informed, vigorous, and free computer environment in Iraq.
To donate, just go to the paypal link on the www.linux-iraq.org site.
Information is also very important. Don Marti, of LinuxJournal, has very generously arranged to have a lot of books sent over to Iraq. But many more are needed. They still don't have any kind of basic intro to Linux. They want to create a strong library for the iLug members and for the soon-to-be created Linux Center.
Technical help is also important. Having people the iLug can turn to for help would be wonderful. Since pretty much every Linux user is a newbie, it's not that easy to find someone who can troubleshoot. Also, as you can see, their website is pretty primitive. It would be great to have someone offer to design and build and host a more exciting one.
5) Domestic vs. Foreign Talent - by Evil Schmoo
Is the recent growth in your user group due to an influx of homegrown Iraqi talent, or are there more foreign users (ie, contractors) coming incountry?
The iLug is almost exclusively home-grown talent. These are Iraqis who have never been outside of Iraq. It started with Hasanen Nawfal, this amazing computer programmer who somehow found out about Linux during Saddam's regime and got a copy of Red Hat (he now prefers Mandrake). This alone shows how curious and capable he is. It was all but impossible to surf the web freely or download much of anything on the crappy pre-war connections. He got his friend Ashraf involved after the war, and together they've been teaching others--mostly college and graduate students--about Linux. I haven't met any returning Iraqi exiles who know Linux or have gotten involved. The foreign contractors are locked away in secure bases and don't interact with the Iraqi population.
Iraq has very well-educated computer science population. Technocrats at the ministries and university professors and students. There are tons of people who know C++ and other languages. But they've been hampered by the lack of new information during sanctions and by the fact that Iraq had no software industry. There are plenty of people who designed computer control systems for power plants or databases and maintained servers. They're smart and experienced, but they have 13 years or so of catching up to do.
6) Legislative issues - by temojen
Given Iraq's clean-slate status:
How can the international community promote the freedom to use information technology for fair and lawful purposes (ie no DRM, free use of strong cryptography)?
I think this is a major issue. It won't be answerable until there is a new Iraqi government (currently scheduled for June 30th at a former rogue state near you) and we are able to assess who is in charge, who is writing the laws, and how much influence the US will have in the process. My guess is the US will have a lot of influence and that copyright protection and it's scary cousins will have a major push. But, judging by the messy process of government-creation (see: salon.com article [Editor's note: Subscription or annoying ad required to view complete story]) it is possible the US will have to negotiate away some controls. I actually have no idea how to influence this process. The people who are currently rewriting Iraqi laws are US folks, many military lawyers who have never dealt with commercial or IP laws before, and they're so locked away in hidden offices in the CPA palace (formerly Saddam's Presidential Palace) that I don't know who they are or who is talking to them. I would say in reality that these issues are far down the list of US concerns right now. But with a new government and this huge market open for the first time, it's hard to imagine the US happily allowing the completely free system in place (there were no copyright protections for foreign companies under Saddam) to stand. I guess the usual: write your congressmen or something.
I think the best thing that can be done here is to inform the future Iraqi government about the dangers of certain kinds of laws. It would be difficult to find Iraqi decision-makers who completely (or at all) support the US presence here. The vast majority are extremely wary of the corporate colonialization of Iraq. So, I think this could be a real fight and there are no clear winners yet.
7) Infrastructure - by Golias
If one believes western media, Iraq is a nation under constant siege, in which the plumbing and electricity is absent for large swathes of the nation, and order is just barely maintained by the massive presense of unwelcome US troops. Also, many in the west believed that Iraq under Saddam was a very backwards and un-developed place (apart from military development), and one was not likely to find many computers at all, let alone connected ones.
So, as somebody who's actually there and actually knows what life is like for a techno-geek in today's Iraq, perhaps you could give us a detailed account about current network infrastructure, how easy or difficult it is to buy computer parts, how much Iraqi people (and Iraqi computer geeks in particular) use Internet technologies to connect to one another (e-mail, blogs, instant messaging, the web, etc.), what cultural attitudes in Iraq concerning the Internet, the global community, and the West, etc.
Most people in the United States (which is where most of the readers of /. come from) know very little about day-to-day life in Iraq. A detailed account would probably be very educational and broadening.
Since I have to spend a lot of time convincing my mom that I'm actually a lot safer than she thinks, I know that the US impression of Iraq is way off. The truth is life here is quite normal. The streets are crowded (way too crowded, traffic is a nightmare), shops are filled with new consumer goods. Restaurants are thriving. Schools are open. People go to work, school, hang out with friends. You see the occasional American humvee or tank roll down the street, but other than that, it's hard to tell you're in a country under occupation and a guerilla war. Much of Baghdad seems like a normal, if poor, third world capital. Not too different from what I've seen in Latin America, say. There are wealthy areas, poor areas, kids playing, all that. A few months ago, I would hear a few explosions every night and a lot of gunfire. It became so common that we'd just ignore it. But these days, those things are so rare that we actually pay attention when they happen.
Middle class folks (who would be desperately poor by US standards), have decent homes, cars, most likely a computer. The middle-class and wealthy areas (like Jadiriya, Karada, Arasat, and Mansour) of Baghdad are extremely lively. Poorer people are pretty badly off. Unemployment is huge and underemployment is horrible. In the Thaura or Seven Palaces neighborhoods, people are lucky to make a buck a day and wouldn't be able to live without the monthly government food ration. They are unlikely to eat much meat--since that's not included in the ration. And they are certainly incapable of buying a computer or even affording the dollar-an-hour internet cafe fees.
There is a lot of fear in Iraq, but much more of bandits than of terrorists. Nighttime Iraq is pretty quiet. Only a few neighborhoods stay open after dark and the highways are all but empty. There is a lot of crime, car-jacking, murder, rape. The nights are bad and most ex-pats, like me, stay in the house. Wealthier Iraqis and ex-pats have armed guards 24-hours and never travel alone. Almost all Iraqis have a Kalachnikov rifle in the house to ward off burglars.
I can say that I've been in Iraq for most of the time since the war and I have never once felt afraid. I'm always cautious, probably a lot more tense than I am back home in New York, but I've never had any reason to fear for my life or safety.
The infrastructure stuff is a major hassle. Power is out as often as it's on. We, like many wealthy Iraqis, have a big generator, so we're able to stay on. But most middle class people can't. There is phone service in about half of Baghdad. The government ISP, Uruklink, is still operating and if you have a phone line you can get on line (assuming you have power). Uruklink does offer DSL service to a few neigborhoods. I have a 256K line that goes down a few hours a week and a few days a month. Yesterday we were down for most of the day because some guerillas cut the fiber-optic line. Most businesses and internet cafes opt for satellite internet connections. These vary in prices, but most likely cost a grand or so a month and are also not terribly reliable, unless you buy a very expensive system. Most Internet cafes have terribly slow connections and are down for hours a week for one reason or another.
But when they're up, the Internet cafes are packed. Pretty much every Iraqi I meet has an email address, even if they don't have a computer, usually through Hotmail or Yahoo. Iraqis love chat rooms and on-line dating services and porn, like everyone else. Male/female relations are so restrictive in Iraqi society. It's pretty much impossible for most single guys to spend any time alone with a woman who is not a relative. So, I think the titillation of the 'net is all too exciting. There is also a huge explosion in networked gaming. Those places are always packed with people playing games with folks from around the world. Some Iraqis even ignore the porn and actually try to figure out what the 'net is all about or learn about advances in their profession or hobby or whatever. I've found that middle-aged and older people are more likely to find the web strange and troubling and less likely to use it. Even more than in other countries, Iraq will soon have a massive generational digital-divide.
In short, Iraqis have access to everything, but it can be a huge pain. Of the iLug founders, Hasanen has a phone line and internet connection, Ashraf doesn't. Because of work and other pressures, Ashraf is able to access his email or read web-based Linux stuff only once or twice a week. Hasanen can do it every day. Not because Hasanen is richer or anything, he's just lucky enough to live in a neigborhood with a phone line. No average Iraqi has a fast-enough connection to download a distribution or even a large program. My DSL line costs a base of more than $200 a month (a fortune for most Iraqis) for a 128k connection and more than $600 a month since I boost the speed to 256k.
8) State Of Intellectual Capital - by RenegadeTempest
After living under totalitarian rule, what is the state of the country's computing talent? What disciplines have the strongest computing talent?
Networking is probably most advanced. It's easy to find Iraqis who can build and maintain a complex network. There are plenty of people who know the basics of desktop computing. And more than a handful of decent programmers. But the coders don't have much experience, since they were limited to small custom projects. Also, the knowledge isn't too broad. Tons of people know C++, even more know visual basic, but few know any other languages.
9) IT jobs in Iraq - by Koyaanisqatsi
Out of curiosity, might as well ask someone who's in the field and there: what are the typical IT positions in Iraq? What skills are most sought after?
Same as above. Networking is the main job here. there are lots and lots of new networks going up--all the ministries and private companies. There are a lot of computer salespeople with their own small shops. Unlike at say, CompUSA, the guy selling you your laser printer probably has a PhD in computer science. With all the money that's about to spent in Iraq (tens of billions this year), I'm sure there will be a lot more demand for network building and maintenance. It'll be a while before there's much of a home-grown programming industry, although there is and will be lots of demand for database and website creation. I can't imagine there will be anyone actually making computer parts any time soon.
10) Intellectual Property legislation - by Elektroschock
I read in other news that Iraq as under US occupation will get a copyright legislation written by a RIAA official. But nobody talks about software patents in Iraq. Will the United States pressure for a US style patent legislation in Iraq? I heard that patents are incompatible with islamic law. Some Muslims in my neighborhood were much in favour of free software because of religious reasons. Do the Iraqis LUG guys also believe that the GPL unlike proprietary software is according to Shariah law?
There is certainly no problem between GPL and Shariah law. Ashraf, the co-founder of iLug, is from a very distinguished Shiite Muslim family. He's a sayed, a direct-descendant of the prophet Mohammed, and takes his religion very seriously. Actually, contrary to what I'd heard before the war and despite decades of secular dictatorial socialism, Iraq is an extremely religious place. Most people don't drink, no Muslim eats pork. As I wrote earlier, I think that it's way too early to tell what Iraqi property rights and patent laws will look like. I think it is best to assume the worst, but to support the iLug, which is the only group I know of in Iraq who advocates for free software. Things are so up in the air right now, all of this is so new (no Iraqi has had to think about intellectual property issues for one minute of their lives), that the decision-makers will be extremely sensitive to influence. It is an open book, but it will be closed soon, within months. Now is the time to support the iLug so they can be powerful advocates for good Iraqi laws.
Ashraf and Hasanen and I believe that good, open laws that avoid the hazards of absurd patents and DMCA style restriction would not only be good for Iraqi Linux geeks, but would be good for the country. This place is so poor, so behind recent advances in technology, but has such a base of strong, eager, excited computing talent. Only with the free and open ability to innovate and collaborate will Iraqi computer professionals and advocates be able to help make this place prosperous.
So, once again, go to www.linux-iraq.org and click on that Paypal button.