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IRAQ: Twittering in Baghdad

April 22, 2009 |  2:04 pm

"Saw the real Baghdad today by driving out in the Red Zone. Lots of work to do, but people are on the street talking and things are moving."

"A bit hotter today in Baghdad. So much concrete. It's everywhere."

So read some of the tweets from Baghdad from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, who is visiting Iraq as part of a delegation of new-media technology executives invited by the State Department to explore ways technology can help rebuild the country.

It's going to be a challenge, they acknowledged in a meeting with reporters today at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone, where they have been staying since Sunday.

The Iraqi government still struggles to provide round-the-clock electricity, and millions of Iraqis lack access to clean drinking water, let alone the Internet.

Altogether, Internet penetration is estimated at around 5% of the population of 28 million people. That means most of the technologies represented by the delegation, including executives from Google, Howcast and YouTube, are beyond the reach of ordinary Iraqis.

But Dorsey noted that 85% of Iraqis use mobile phones, which will allow them to use Twitter updates to stay in touch and promote social networks.

The executives have been busily using their own technologies to broadcast details of their visit, which has included a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and a closely guarded trip into the Red Zone to a technology university.

"Many students and others blamed the government for every almost every issue from power to Internet access," blogged Raanan Bar-Cohen, vice president of media services at Automattic Inc., the San Francisco-based start-up best known for its WordPress software used by millions of bloggers.

 "Nearly nobody had faith or energy in seeing the private sector tackle these issues," he added, noting the widespread dependence of most Iraqis on their government.

"Taking off my helmet and flak jacket," twittered Dorsey.

"Talked with a great bunch of students and professors at the technology university," said another tweet. "Unfortunately had to leave early due to a security issu (sic)."

The delegation declined to say what the security issue was, citing security reasons.

But they said they were confident new technologies could be harnessed in many ways by the new Iraq, to promote transparency in government, encourage private-sector development and address many of the social problems Iraq is confronting.

"The war widows, the No. 1 thing they need is to talk to one another ... and that's the heart of what the Internet is," said Scott Heifermen, founder of Meetup, an online network of community organizers.

And Richard Robbins, director of social innovation for AT&T, tweeted that he had extracted a promise from Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, "who really gets it," to start tweeting right away.

-- Liz Sly in Baghdad