Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mobile Phones Used to Text Threats

Modern cellphones may be convenient, but many Iraqis are abandoning them because they bear nothing but bad news.
By Aws al-Timimi
Mobile phones, for many years a forbidden object of desire for Iraqis, are beginning to lose some of their lustre, as getting a call rarely means good news.

The insurgents send text messages to warn people to quit their jobs, while kidnappers ring up to deliver their ransom demands.

Hassan Hashim, a 40-year-old salesman in Baghdad, bought mobiles for his entire family as soon as they became available in Iraq. But after spending days on the phone negotiating with criminals for the release of his brother, kidnapped five months ago, he now loathes the things.

Hashim paid the kidnappers 15,000 US dollars to get his brother back, only to receive yet another call to say his dead body had been found. The family have since given up their phones.

"These phones don’t bring us anything good,” said Hashim. “I used to survive without a cell phone, and I felt safe because the landlines were heavily monitored. Now anyone can use the phone to commit crime and deception.”

Iraq was the last country in the Middle East to get a mobile phone network. In Saddam Hussein’s time, only landlines were allowed, and

international calls went through state-controlled operators to make it easier for the government to monitor conversations.

Cellular services started in January 2004 with a limited number of connections. Back then, people were ready to pay up to 1,000 dollars for a sought-after SIM card, which even at that price was still preferable to an expensive satellite phone, the only reliable way of calling abroad at the time.

Mobile handsets were expensive, with the cheapest costing 120 dollars, a lot of money in a country where monthly salaries average between 200 and 350 dollars.

Competition eventually brought prices down, and handsets are now available for 40 dollars, but despite this, a growing number of Iraqis are abandoning mobiles and going back to the old-fashioned landlines.

The falling demand is due to their widespread use of mobile technology by kidnappers and blackmailers.

Mohammed Yasir, 27, a civil servant in the defence ministry in Baghdad, has changed his number three times after receiving threats via text message warning him to leave his job.

"It’s good that we now all have these communication facilities which were banned under Saddam. But technology becomes dangerous when militants use it for their own ends," said Yasir.

He has no idea how to stop the text threats, saying each time he changes SIM card they resume after a few days.

Prepaid phone cards mean that militants and kidnappers run a low risk of being caught, according to a staff member in the legal department of the Iraquna telecoms company. Forged documents are also alarmingly easy to obtain.

“People with ill intentions do not give their real name and address when they register. They make a deal with the phone dealer and hand over false information so that the security forces can't pursue them," said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

Prepaid SIM cards are also available on the black market where no documents at all are required.

Another popular trick is to buy a phone and promise to bring in the documentation later. A contract will be cancelled after 30 days if the client fails to show proper credentials, but according to Ahmed Emad, a cell phone dealer in eastern Baghdad, “That is a long enough period for a militant group that kidnaps and blackmails people.”

To avoid threats, some Iraqis will only take calls from numbers they recognise.

Others will not use their phones at all, because looking at them brings up sad memories of relatives and friends who have been killed.

"Whenever I want to call someone, I see the names of my dead friends in my phonebook," said Ahmed Nabil, 22, a media student who has lost two brothers and two friends in the violence. "Then I leave my work to remember the time we spent together, and I start crying.

“I can't even look at my messages, because they used to send me nice or funny texts that now make me cry."

Aws al-Timimi is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.