Linux in the Global Community: How the Iraqi Linux Group came to exist

Posted by tadelste on Jun 5, 2005 11:05 AM EDT
Iraqi Linux Users Group; By Tom Adelstein
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My experience in the Linux Community has allowed me to see how cooperative software development transcends cultural differences and allows diverse people to become friends. Unlike other communities, Linux has only one agenda and when something gets in the way, the spotlight can result in appropriate exposure.

The philosophy behind Free, Open Source Software has parallels in several cultures which practice ethical cooperaton. Perhaps that's why it threatens unethical business practices which feed on the unknowing. In this series, I plan report on (1) successes otherwise unknown (2) some cultural reasons for Linux acceptance in the world community (3) practices that might thrawt the spread of cooperative community activities.



Community cooperation has existed through modern history. In the United States, communities of immigrants have always joined together to help one another rise in socio-economic terms since the earliest of times.



A cooperative movement in Bavaria, Austria and South Tyrol established service cooperatives, federations and central banks from the mid 19th century and into the 1930's. They were called Raiffeisen Genossenschafts Bewegung which in English translates to the Raiffeisen cooperative movement. Some historians compare Raiffeisen to traditions in Islamic society making comparisons to Islamic countries where insurance and banking companies are often operating like what we would call mutual funds.



In this installment, we're reprinting a post from the Iraq Linux Users group, unedited. You might wish to see this experience unfiltered from another's point of view. All I would ask you to remember when reading this is that in 1991 Gulf War started as a result of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.



The following material comes from this Forum Post .





An Iraqi's story by Bassam Hassan - CoFounder of the ILUG



-- Bassam worked with Streamtime during the Merbed Festival in Basrah at the beginning of April as our 'streaming technician eastern philosofical style' --




How the Iraqi Linux Group came to exist, despite the corruption of USAID





"It's cumbersome for me to discuss the aspects of technology development in Iraq in the past 35 years when considering the graveness and massiveness of the political events which occurred in Iraq while simultaneously taking into account the rapid pace and the consecutive nature of these events.

It's no secret that Iraq was involved in three major military confrontations with the greatest powers in the world represented by the Iranian army and the mighty left hand of god (The US Army!). It's no secret also that Iraq was governed by one of the worst dictatorships humanity ever witnessed throughout history.

The state of the successive wars and the atrocities of the past regime had a massive and permanent influence upon the technological, social and cultural development of the Iraqi community. I can't say that wars and the repressive regime were the sole factors involved in that multi-dimensioned equation since Iraq was not a developed country back before the Ba'ath party gained governmental domination in 1968 A.D. However, it's effect was enormous and I believe that it has changed, or more precisely 'maimed' the cultural makeup of the Iraqi community.



Indeed, Iraq is a country with a rich history and it's a blatant fact that Iraq played a key role in the development of the human civilization. Now I have to stress that I'm not interested in history but I just want to mention that the first legislation in the ancient world, for example, was designed, written and most importantly 'enforced' in Iraq. How ironical that might seem when compared to the situation today!

I'm not a politician and I'm not a history books' worm. I'm just a simple guy who was born in the middle of a military conflict and struggled to make his way out; it was not easy, but it was not impossible also.



Now before I become histrionic and over dramatize this and before you start wiping tears from your eyes, why don't you just sit back and relax in your chair while I tell you the real story as I've seen it. It would be interesting, I guarantee it :)

Now, lets get started.

I was born in Baghdad in a very fine and high class neighborhood in the early eighties of the past century; now it has turned into a big graveyard, thanks to the US army. Anyway, when I was about four years old, I moved with my sister and her husband to live in their apartment because my parents were outside Iraq at that time and somebody had to take care of me. All I can remember is that my room was much smaller than my former room in my house in Baghdad. I stayed there for over a year playing among pipes and huge mountains of sand, or how I used to perceive them. Later on, I was told that I was living inside a residential housing inside the Iraqi Atomic Energy Program facility. My sister's husband was a civil engineer and he was supervising the construction of the facilities of the project or something like that. So you can clearly see that I got an offbeat start from the beginning. How do I remember all of this? Well, I got a strong memory!

Moving on, I returned back to Baghdad where I attended primary school. At that time my older brother was attending programming classes in a private college in Iraq. I was about 6 when I got my first Atari! I don't recall the exact model but I remember that I got an up to date gaming console as a birthday present from my father who bought it for me from France.

In 1989, I was about 7 years old when my brother brought an up-to-date Personal Computer home. It was a NEC machine called ''Warkaa' 6001''. Some piece of hardware that was specifically assembled and customized for middle east users. Of course, I was too young to understand the full mechanics of the piece of technology which was available at my disposal. However, I remember that I was quickly hooked up to video games and to melodies. I used to spend endless hours in front of the computer screen trying to figure out what all of these keyboard keys do!

ISOLATED ENVIRONMENT



Indeed, 1989 was a good year for Iraqis; well, at least that was my impression. The Iranian war had just ceased and Iraqis were celebrating what they named 'The indomitable victory'. I was living in a perfectly isolated environment, only peers from the same social class were accessible for me. I recall that most of my friends possessed an MSX1 machine. We were in the habit of exchanging games cartridges all the time. Titles like Castle, Nightmare, Selemender, Nemesis and Kings Vally were more than familiar to us. Some of my friends also got their hands on rare titles of that time like the Penguin Adventure and Soccer. So the point is that we could get hardware, software and game titles. I used to watch many movies, I used to accompany my parents to the Cinema, see Bruce Lee kick some asses! There were very fine Cinemas in Iraq in the late eighties and early nineties and it's painful for me to say WERE because there are no decent Cinemas in Iraq anymore.

In my neighborhood, all of my school and street friends possessed MSX1. Some of them were trying to learn how to program using the BASIC programming language. I tried to learn it myself but I had a difficult time because of the English being part of the learning. I had to understand what a compiler is? What is an interpreter? I had to know many things but my English was very weak at that time albeit the fact it was relatively advanced when compared to that of other students.

I remember my first graphics program in BASIC. It was drawing a circle and holding it on the screen using the CIRCLE command and the infamous GOTO command. I was pretty proud of myself because I could draw a circle on the screen!

My programming skills were developing and I started to draw a 'Relatively Speaking' complicated set of graphics using the BASIC programming language.

WAR

However, fate had something else in it's mind. The first Gulf war started in 1991 and I don't want to describe how severely it affected my life and attitude and, by comparison, the life and attitude of my comrades. It was the first time in my life to see an electrical power cut or more precisely a complete 'Black out'. No phone lines, nothing...



I moved north with my family just like many others and there I lived a pretty ugly and primitive life: no electricity, no phone lines, no potable water and no security. I kept on moving from place to place and from one city to the other in an attempt to survive. In that journey, many of my thoughts have changed. I changed myself because it was my first hands-on experience with war. As you might logically deduce, I could afford to skip the Iranian war, I was too young to figure out what the hell was going on. However, the first Gulf war was different.
The enemy was different. This time it was no joke, it was the US Army and they saved no effort at all in destroying every beautiful place in my city. When the war was over, I returned back to Baghdad, to the same fine neighborhood I used to live in. However, this time the neighborhood looked different. I don't know whether it was me who changed or it was the neighborhood? But now I believe that it was both of us. I started to search for my friends just to find that many of them were missing. Some of them left the country with their parents, others were simply lost during the war.

The end of the first Gulf war was the beginning of the technical, technological and social deterioration which led the country to what you see today. Indeed, Iraq was not a developed country. However, it was pretty developed when compared to it's neighbors like (Jordan, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and even U.A.E) at the period. This development could be noticed through the quality of the public services in the country, through the quality of the infrastructure like the electrical lines, phone lines, roads and public services.

However, what happened in the aftermath was really frustrating. The infrastructure suffered so long from neglects and from successive strokes which reflected itself in the deterioration of the quality of the services provided to the community. I was at secondary school at that period, 13 or 14 years old. I noticed that new hardware ceased to appear in the market, new game titles didn't show up and movies were repeated and old. And I believe that this was a direct result from the destructed economy which dramatically influenced the consuming capacity of the average person.

In any event, I'm only interested in presenting the factors which affected the technological development in Iraq after the first Gulf war in 1991. I remember that we remained for more than 8 months after the official cessation of fire with no electricity. It was the toughest period for me and you can imagine how did I feel about it. How do you expect someone who lives his life as a game junkie to survive with no electricity? It was a major transform for me since it was the first time for me to experience a real war situation.

I'm not a soldier, I can say that I've never participated in a real battle, no 'Saving private Rayan' crap! However, what I've experienced were the consequences of wars and how those wars negatively affected the technical and technological development of my generation when compared with our peers within the same age group and even the same ethnic and social makeups in neighboring communities.



SANCTIONS

The Gulf war was not a unique war. There are many wars in the world and I believe that what Japanese people, for example, experienced was far worse than what the Iraqis experienced up to 1991. What really was unique regarding the situation of Iraq after the war were the economical sanctions which were imposed by the U.N. (i.e USA). These stringent economical sanctions had an enormous effect on the technological development of the Iraqi community and especially on the younger generation slice to which I belonged.

The objectives of the sanctions were clear and simple; exclude Iraq and isolate it from the international community, start a huge burglary program called the 'Oil for food and drugs' program, get rich and dominate the area. The sanctions were funny in a way; they were like a firewall but with no port open to communicate with the outside world. I remember that once when I was in college I considered the idea of opening a medical research center in Iraq. So I emailed a company called Sensible, I believe that the URL is still http://www.sensible.com. Anyway, I asked the sales department whether I can buy a Haptic hardware interface for medical research. Of course, I couldn't afford it, I just wanted to ask to know the price of the equipment and whether it's possible to ship these equipments to Iraq. I thought that maybe I could convince the academic board in the college regarding this. Believe it or not, the policy of the former regime was to encourage and fund any weird and bizarre idea and my Haptic project was supposed to fall within this category. You know, it was one of those nights when you sit alone and think about some crazy shit in your mind!

I even considered the possibility of meeting Saddam in person and tell him about this project. Now you might think that Saddam was nothing but a ruthless murderer who had nothing to do with science. Well, you are right in a sense and you are wrong. Saddam was really an ignorant person, however, he more than once funded highly respected research projects in different domains. Nevertheless, such projects usually required the personal presence of the person in charge in front of Saddam himself. You had to explain to the basic concept of the project using very SIMPLE words, any word in English and you will get decapitated! If you succeeded to convince him that your idea is good, no matter what it is or what it does, if he liked the idea in a sense you will get unlimited funding for the project. And when I say unlimited, I mean the literal meaning of the word.

What I got was a message from the director of the sales department. She told me that 'Sensible technologies can't sell anything to Iraq due to the US Embargo regulations, directly or indirectly and not even to a third party which may deliver these equipments to Iraq'. It was a frustrating feeling for me to know that my country can't import or export anything.

Anyway, I reached to this point very fast, let's get back to the era between 1994-1999. During this period the economical situation in Iraq reached to the abysmal bottom of hell. People were working day and night in a desperate attempt to provide food and shelter for their families. Salaries were too low, low to a point that you won't imagine; less than 4 Dollar/month. All employees had to find an additional job to survive the month, many of them were obliged to take bribes and fees for passing any paperwork or when swinging any routine. And from there, the infamous management corruption journey has started which is still present until today.



My family was not rich, although we were slightly higher than the middle class. However, I remember that we turned out to become slightly better than the poor class in the community which expanded throughout these years. So, I couldn't afford to buy any new hardware, and having software without the necessary hardware would be meaningless.

Indeed, I had access to Omega computers and to IBM workstations. But that was just because I used to hang out with some spoiled rich kids who could afford to buy such machines. Video games returned back to the Iraqi market in spite of all the sanctions and the devastated economical situation. Micro and Sega gaming consoles were everywhere albeit the fact that only a handful of teenagers could afford to buy one. However, there were video games shops everywhere. I followed many titles and I played almost every game available on Sega. I was a local Champion in Mortal Combat Sega trilogy :)

Anyway, our programming experience suffered so much since we couldn't afford to buy any X86 based machine. We continued programing using the BASIC programing language and using MSX1 and MSX2 machines. The computer lab in the school was way too retarded to be labeled as a 'computer lab'. We studied BASIC (Again!), Fortran and some database system, I don't recall exactly, it was called Lotus or something like that. In any way, the computer teacher was almost a computer illiterate, a typical incompetence scenario in the Iraqi governmental system. He managed to suffocate the bright students in the lab and he used to get outrageous whenever we tried to rectify some of his shameful and naïve mistakes. In any event, my initial 3 years in high school or secondary school, you call it as you want, created a technical gap in my knowledge. And I wasn't unique in this since all of my friends suffered the same as well. The bad computer lab, the obsolete machines and the archaic teaching methodology in addition to the difficult economical circumstances, all fostered negatively on my technical and technological development and on that of my comrades.

Now I have to emphasize on the fact that I was in one of the best high schools in the country (Gifted Boys) school. Highly disciplined. Only people who scored high in the IQ tests were admitted and the very best teachers were in the faculty staff. Except for the computer teacher, of course :)). Yes, our computer lab was retarded and our curriculum was outdated. Still, the curriculum for the basic sciences were pretty advanced when compared to those of other Arabic and even some western countries.

We had a respectful education in English, French, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. One of my friends immigrated to News land and he scored the first on the final high school exams. He mailed our school in Iraq saying that the only difference in the teaching between there and here is the utilization of the computer and some pretty advanced lab equipments.

You have to understand that my aim is not to brag that I was in the best high school in the country, but to point out that if this was the situation in the best school in the best neighborhood and in the best city in Iraq 'Baghdad' I can only imagine how it was in other (less disciplined) schools, in high poverty neighborhoods and in less developed cities like in the south or in the west.



Anyway, in 1998 the economical situation in Iraq was very bad and I had to work to support myself and to contribute in some of the expenses of my education to lower the burden for my family. And also, I wanted to get out of my perfectly isolated environment, I wanted to see how people were living in other cities in Iraq after more than 8 years of the sanctions. I accompanied a relative of mine to Sammaraa' city which is close to Baghdad. I worked my way there. It was a pretty ugly situation there. There were no computers in the city. No local citizen had ever heard the word 'Internet' although it was almost the end of 1998. Yes, I didn't have Internet at that time, but still I knew what Internet was or at least the basic concepts behind it. The infrastructure was completely destructed. It was the year when the US Army conducted it's second wave of attack. This war was labeled as the 'Second Gulf War'. It was short, but it was deadly. The economy went down to the ground again and this time it was like living in a pure hell.

However, I continued my study at that high school and I kept my passion for computers. I was determined on getting an Internet access through any means possible. That was in 1999 and in that year I was accepted in an accelerating teaching program and I could skip one year after passing stringent tests. I remember that there were Pentium based personal computers at that period. I was lucky or 'rich' enough since luck has nothing to do with it to get my hands on one of them. At that time, it was my initial contact with the C programming language, my English was pretty good and I could read any English programming manual with no observable difficulty.

WANTED: WWW

Many of my friends who were previously computer geeks shifted their interest to other disciplines like medicine or engineering. All this because we couldn't get any new hardware since nobody could afford it and because we couldn't get any Internet access. Many knew what Internet was, but their knowledge was useless since there was no single ISP in Iraq.

Internet entered Iraq in 1997. I'm almost certain of that date. However, it was reserved exclusively to the Iraqi intelligence and some governmental institutions. I first read about the Internet in a book called Internet Go to 1,2 or that's the English translation from the Arabic version I could get. And I remember that when I opened the introductory page of the book, I read the following line (Again, I'm translating back from Arabic): ('Unless you have been living under a rock for a quite period of time, you must have heard of the Internet'. Well, that line filled my heart with grief and sorrow since I wasn't living under a rock, but I was living in the richest country in the world and still I couldn't get any Internet access.

I finished reading the book in one session. I read everything regarding WWW, Email, HTTP, FTP protocols, Usenets, Newsgroups and stuff like that. It was really astonishing for me what I read and especially when I considered the endless possibilities. At last, I knew what the blue IE Icon on my desktop does!



In a sense, it made no difference since there was no single ISP in Iraq in the late 1999 and the early 2000. I knew that there was Internet service in some governmental institutions. I knew that I had to make a security breach in the existing system of one these governmental entities if I want to see the web. However, obstacles were all the way. First of all, stealing a pen from a governmental institution is like stealing 1,000,000$. There are many different punishments and the least painful is execution.

WANTED: ACCESS

I had to make a choice: Either I continue living with no Internet access, or I take my chances and risk the fact that I may get some physical punishments for my actions. Well, I always believed that everyone is responsible for his/her actions. In any event, I've decided that I need Internet access, the 'Urge for the blood was stronger' as Blade says :).

And so, I acted respectively and since I knew that most if not all of the users of the Internet center in all of the governmental institutions were computer illiterate, I've decided to do some primitive HACKING AND SOCIAL ENGINEERING. I first brought some cracking software from the market which most often came from Syria. Yes, although we had no Internet access but we had access to almost every available software on the market; you can easily get the biggest M$ Windows server edition for almost one US$. There is no software on earth that you can imagine that you won't find in the Iraqi market. From Alias 3D Maya graphics and Adobe products to Windows servers and M$ Office. Game titles used to populate the market as well. Long live Syria, China and Korea :)

I tried to find some software which was effective, reliable and handy. The problem was that I couldn't connect to the main server in anyway since I wasn't hooked up to any LAN or such. And so, the only feasible method was to be present physically near the main server and try to get the PWL file (Password List file) for the WinME or Win9X based server. I don't mean the main server, only the terminal which had the PWL file to dial up the main server.

However, getting that access required some authorization that I didn't possess. So I did my first social engineering project.



I called the Internet center and I told them that I'm from the ministry of Media and then I told them that they have problems at their Internet service and that the ministry will send someone to repair the system. You might logically think 'why the hell they didn't call the ministry back to verify the call?' Well, I don't know until today. However, I dressed up and I went down to the Internet center.

Everything worked out as planned and I got 10 minutes access to the terminal. I quickly and swiftly copied the PWL file from the existing system. The manager was observing over my shoulder but I was convinced that he didn't understand what I was doing. And so, I could copy the PWL file to a diskette. I made some keystrokes and some mouse clicks. I opened some crap in the control panel and I created the illusion that I was repairing something. I made checkdisk!!

Then I told the manager that his system is now fully functional. He naively thanked me and told me to get out of there and I was more than happy to do that. I returned back home and anxiously opened the diskette. I got the RePWL program installed at my machine and although it was a demo or a trial version (I don't recall exactly), it did work like magic. I knew what number to dial and when I saw the login screen, my heart was beating so fast that I could barely breath!

However, I overcame the excitement when I remembered that the center was not closed yet. I knew that the governmental institutions closed down at 2 or 3 p.m maximum. So, I waited and then I redialed again and this time I entered the User name and password I got and when I saw the two screens on the bottom right of my task bar, I started jumping like a monkey. I opened IE and typed http://www.yahoo.com and that was the first web page I visited.

I was overwhelmed. I don't remember that I ever slept that night. I was afraid from the LOG that someone would notice that this account has been used after work from an outside number. I waited two days after my first connection. I was afraid that the intelligence would come and catch me. So, I was reluctant to dial that number again. However, the 'Urge for the blood was stronger' again and I couldn't resist the temptation.

I dialed late at that night and I got connected again. This time I was more confident and less frightened. I explored the web for the first time. I tried everything that you may imagine. Of course, there was a proxy called Xstop which blocked any access to everything from web based email service and web hosting sites to newspapers like NY Times and BBC. Yahoo mail was blocked, hotmail was blocked and anything which may connect you with any other person on the net was blocked. No news server, no FTP access, no nothing. Only web pages which were not politically involved. And even though that didn't resemble anything like an Internet service, I was more than happy with it.



I explored programming sites, technical sites, dentistry and medical sites, martial arts and stuff. It was a really amazing feeling that you have an outside access from INSIDE. Since we were thoroughly isolated: the local media were exclusively reserved for Saddam Hussein and there was no way to communicate with the outside world or to acknowledge any other opinion.

I was pretty proud and pretty frightened at the same time. I lived that era with a voice in the back of my head that someday they will discover what I did and they will come after me. However, I didn't care. Yes, I didn't care since it was too late for me to drop back now. I freed my mind and I couldn't go back anymore, even if I wanted to (Sounds like Neo and Morpheos in the Matrix, right?).

So, I kept what I was doing but covertly and secretly. I was too afraid to tell anyone even my parents and my closest friends even though I was certain that none of them will snitch me to the local authorities. It was like a de facto standard that you should keep your mouth shut. A rule of thumb at that time was to 'Trust Nobody' and that 'Everybody is lying until otherwise approved'. That situation of distrust had a great influence over the social development of the Iraqi community.

OK, back to my story.

I was pretty sure that there were people who knew that I was there. I knew that they do exist as well on the same LAN I was connecting to; I always felt that there were other people who were logged in with me too, even at that late time of night. But none of us was willing to run a scanning program to scan for other user or to open a telnet or netmeeting. I was afraid that the intelligence personnel were roaming the LAN for any unauthorized access and I believe that other people were thinking the same way. Again, the same very feeling of the fear of the unknown.

Anyway, I kept on running any firewall that I could get and kept on browsing the web. This time I faced new obstacles. First, the stolen Internet service was bad and slow. It was a normal thing that I got disconnected from the server more than 10 times per one hour. Nevertheless, I didn't give up. I knew that there had to be a way around this. I used to wake up early in the morning, something between 5 and 6 a.m just to get connected. The line was much better in the morning (of course, when assuming that electricity was present).



WANTED: EMAIL

I wanted to open an email account. Not a big goal, but it was big for me. No web based email service was present. The god dammed Xstop (Which is an American Company, BTW) had blocked every access to any web based email service. The purpose was to control the way people may communicate with the outside world. There was an email service that was opened to the public at that time. Our ISP was called SCIS (Social Company for Internet Services) which we used to call 'Social Company for Infinite Stealing' since that was what they were. Believe it or not, SCIS was still the only Dial Up based ISP present in Iraq after the war. In any event, the email service they opened to the public was pretty controlled and carefully restricted. You have to supply information like those you provide when you open a bank account in Geneva. Every message was filtered and read. There were time restrictions as well in addition to the fact that this service was pretty costy by comparison with the monthly income of the average employee. In any event, I didn't want to subscribe with this service. I wanted to open a HOTMAIL or a YAHOO account. I played a cat and mouse game with proxy. Any web page which might provide any information regarding how to bypass a proxy was blocked. Any anonymous proxy list web page was blocked. Searching for the word 'proxy' in google or yahoo would return a blocked search page. So you can imagine how it was.

I wanted to open an email so bad that I got some crazy idea. At 2 a.m in the morning at mid 2001, I've decided to run a brute force attack on the Iraqi Email server. That was a direct challenge and uprising against the omnipotent, omniscient regime. I said to myself 'to hell with it, what worse can happen?' and with that attitude in mind, I ran the brute force attack program on the mail server. It was late that night and I was getting a little bit sleepy when I suddenly saw a pop-up window telling me that an account had been retrieved. I couldn't believe my eyes, it was real!

The user name and password for the account were test:test. That test account was left unnoticed by everyone and since I didn't provide any personal information, I could use that account for whatever purpose I wanted. Believe me when I say that I got every evil idea in the world in my mind at that moment!

EXCHANGE WITH NORTH-KOREA AND SUDAN

I searched for other people in other countries who had the same problem as a strict filter and a proxy. I ended up with people from North Korea and people from Sudan. I subscribed to a mailing list for that purpose. It was a Korean mailing list with a funny name that I can't write or remember. We all secretly discussed the possible way of bypassing a proxy. Some gave me addresses of anonymous proxies which I tried. Yes, some of them worked, especially the Korean ones, still whenever I enter the BBC or the NY Times site, it got blocked. I discussed it again with my new CYBER friends. They told me that I should use HTTP Tunnel program. That software was great but it was a little bit difficult to use. It worked fine and I could finally bypass the Xstop proxy and open a web based email. That was something at that time. I felt like that I didn't belong to the system and in some way I was above it.


By cracking the Xstop proxy, I had literally made a communication breakthrough. I could connect to any newsgroup, mail service and I could communicate with anyone with no fear. I was cautious, though. I always felt that someone was watching. Nevertheless, my eagerness to explore and learn was stronger than my fear. And so, I decided to push myself one step further and learn how to hack and crack into systems and today I believe that it was that decision which brought me to Linux and to the fascinating world of open source.

LINUX IN IRAQ?

A question which crosses the mind of every journalist, media activist and crisis areas specialist is how, when and where did Linux enter to Iraq? Well, there are multiple aspects involved for this story and mine is only a fraction of the whole story.

The adoption curve of Linux tracks that of the Internet inside Iraq meaning that Linux entered Iraq when Internet entered Iraq in the same era. Linux was a system which was designed for networking, multiuser usage and communication. And hitherto, Linux is most powerful when Internet access is available. However, the question remains who was the first to bring this system to life in Iraq. Well, I can only tell you how did I get my first Distor of Linux and by comparison you can statistically deduce the shear number of Linux users in Iraq under the former regime.

For me, I only got to know Linux through an article I read on Eric Raymond's website. I was searching the web for 'how to become an elite hacker' and I ended up browsing Eric Raymond's article entitled 'How to become a Hacker?'. Eric Raymond is a known and award winning Open Source developer and despite the fact that I didn't know he was at that time, I recall that I was deeply motivated by reading his article. For the first time I knew what is the difference between cracking and hacking. He set rules and guidelines that any newbie could easily follow. He discussed aspects of hacking I believe that hitherto many good hackers don't know about or don't want to know about.

WANTED: LINUX



Anyway, at the end of that article Eric stressed that one should get a UNIX or Linux System. And then when I first heard about the word Linux. I knew that there was something called MAC somewhere. However, I didn't care too much since searching for a MAC machine in Iraq was like searching for the Sangraal or the holy grail, for instance. Anyhow, I read about Linux in different websites and from there I reached to the concept of Open Source and to SlashDot.org website.

However, I faced the problem that there was no Linux Distro around. I couldn't download any Linux distribution since my connection was a crappy one and adding to that my last hacked password was discovered and my account was closed and so I was living with no Internet access at that time.

Nevertheless, I searched for more than 3 weeks in every software shop in Baghdad trying to find a Linux Distro but I didn't find any. My last resort was a shop in Baghdad which was specialized in collecting 'BIZARRE and RARE' softwares. I went to that shop and asked the seller the following question in an anxious tone 'Do you have Linux???!'

And how glad I was when he replied: 'Yes! I do have two CDs which are labeled as Linux1 and Linux2, I don't know what they are and I have never tried them'. I told him that it didn't matter: 'Just burn me two copies each, please!'

I went home and I inserted the first CD. I changed the boot sequence to boot from the CDROM. And surprisingly, a cute little penguin appeared on the screen and I got the message 'Starting Anaconda'. It was Redhat7. I remember that I didn't have any installation manual; it was stated that the installation manual was inside the CD!

So, I recall that I crashed my hard drive more than 13 or 15 times before I installed it correctly. Mounting and partitioning was the hardest part. And when I finally got it right and logged in to the GNOME Desktop. I phoned my close friends and I told them that 'I installed Linux'. Their reaction ranged from cold compliments to vague indifference!



Anyway, I didn't care that much and continued learning how to use Linux. Sure, I relapsed to Windows many times but I always returned back to Linux. And as I became more and more familiar with the system, I started my first evangelism mission for Linux. I helped people to install and use it. However, most of them were heavily addicted to Windows and to their beloved games. They didn't appreciate the spirit or the concept of Open Source. Nevertheless, my activities went on and on until the beginning of the year 2003.

I don't believe that many people knew how to use Linux in spite of that I roamed a lot and I had seen many techies inside Iraq. I do believe that only a handful of people knew how to install it and use it. I do believe that people of the former Iraqi intelligence knew how to use Linux or at least some Unix systems. I know that there was no formal training in Linux and Unix inside Iraq before the fall of the regime; not in the Iraqi universities and not in the private sector. Nevertheless, I believe that only a few selected individuals knew how to use it and that they reached proficiency level. However, most probably they have left the country to work abroad since there was no single specialized software company in Iraq.

WAR

The war came and the regime fell. And with the fall of the regime a state of anarchy started in the country. Everything was stolen by everyone. Many people discovered that huge hardware stores were hidden inside the ministry of media; Laptops counted by thousands were discovered inside the Olympic committee which was controlled by Audai Saddam Hussein. The American army opened doors and made holes in buildings and ministries to allow people to steal. Everyone was stealing everything. The Americans participated in a huge part in this burglary campaign. I was there in Baghdad watching that miserable scene.

Fujitsu Siemens laptops were sold by the price of less than 200$. Many distributers and famous resellers bought the biggest part of these laptops. P4 based PCs were sold for less than 20$! There was a gold rush in the city. Iraq was like a treasure island. Go and search and what you find, you keep. It was a disgusting thing to watch and although I was desperate to get my hands on a laptop since electrical power supply was close to none at those days, I preferred to stay clean and to merely play the role of a bystander.

The war ended as expected. The army was too weak to resist the mighty power of the U.S army. Saddam dug a hole and hid inside. The rest of us had to make their own way through the mayhem. And as I said in the beginning, it was not easy but it was not impossible either.



IRAQI LINUX GROUP MEETS USAID

One year later, I was about to finish my last semester in my college when I got an email from some friend with the following subject 'Linux in Iraq!' and there was only one link in the body of the message. That link was http://www.iraqilinux.com. I was surprised by that message since I was almost certain that only few people knew about Linux in Iraq. I clicked the link and I saw a fully loaded web page talking about the possibilities of Linux in Iraq. I was overwhelmed by seeing that. I tried to see who were the founders and how surprised I was when I discovered that there were founders inside Iraq.

I started posting on the IraqiLinux forum and got replies from everyone. One of the replies came from Hasanen http://hasanen.iraqilinux.com. He was a founder of the newly formed LUG and he was inside. I asked him for a meeting and we met the very next day. From the start of our meeting, I knew that he was different. He was highly technical, I tried to use specific terms and concepts that I know for sure that only a technical person on a high level would know and I was surprised when he told me about things that I didn't know at that time. A friendship was born in that meeting. We hit it off right away and he told me that there was a meeting for people interested in Linux in the Convention palace in Baghdad and that I was welcome to join if I wanted to.

I decided to attend that meeting and was right by doing so. There, I met Ashraf Hasson; the president of the ILUG and the later formed IOSO (Iraqi Open Source Organization). Ashraf is a highly educated person, with excellent communication skills. There were some people at that meeting, most of them I didn't know. I only knew Hasanen who presented me as a Linux activist in Iraq. There was military personnel from the US Army as well. It was my first contact with the US military. They looked exactly like what we see in movies. They used the same army language and it just seemed so cool at that time.

The American officer presented himself as an NGO coordinator. He informed us that the USAID are interested in creating an IraqiLinux NGO inside Iraq. It's objectives would be to spread Linux and Open Source in Iraq. He promised us many things at that time. He said that we held a huge responsibility and that the USAID will not give us up. It was so cool at that time.

Indeed, we wanted to do such a thing. It was a new experience for all of us and we were all self motivated to do that. The next two months we spent preparing legal papers and writing the constitution for the prospect NGO ( The IOSO). We wanted to get started as quickly as possible.



Adam Davidson was an American journalist present in Baghdad at that time, he emphasized that we should separate the NGO from the LUG. I met him twice in the palace of Conventions and he seemed like a nice guy at that time. He presented an article on slashdot.org about the newly formed LUG and created a pay pal donation account to support the LUG. Well, that was before I even joined the LUG. However, Hasanen told me that the donations mounted to more than 3000$ and that Davidson only gave 1000$ to Ashraf for their everyday expenditures.
We didn't care at that time. We were too busy trying to get the NGO on it's feet. We dedicated most of our time for the NGO. I remember that I used to spend 4-6 hours after college just writing reports and formulating the constitution and planning the work for the next meeting with the other members. We used to meet at the palace each Thursday. And finally, after stalling and delays we formed the NGO: Now what?

Every NGO has a purpose, ours was to spread the Linux education in Iraq. And that is what we did. We started presenting seminars at colleges and Universities in Baghdad, some InstallFests and copying Linux Distros for the public. Still, we needed funding to sustain and to pay for our own expenses. And since the USAID was the only available source of funding at that time and since none of us knew how to run a financial budget, we trusted the American officer Shawn Jensen to do that.

He was with us from the beginning and he was our sole interface to the USAID. After a few months and when we almost got broke because we were spending from our own budget with no other income, we finally got a call from Shawn that we should come and attend a meeting for an important matter.

We rapidly went to the palace of Convention in spite of the threats of killing and kidnapping of any person who may approach the Green Zone area. And when we sat down, he told us that the USAID wants the IraqiLinux to design and implement a website which would act as an interface between local and international NGOs. The project description was to design and implement a website where local NGOs can post their needs like drugs, food or anything and international NGOs would respond to these needs respectively.

We felt great since finally we could get some funding for this project to pay for our debts and our expenses. Ashraf spent too much from his own pocket and he was so excited to implement this project.


I sat down with Hasanen and discussed the project requirements and I drafted a paper with the requirements for the website and we also discussed the best software tools to use for implementing this project.

We met with Shawn again and this time he told us that we should define a budget for the project. We considered that we needed hardware, Internet access which is extremely expensive, web hosting, administrator budget and programmers' salaries. So we proposed 10,000$ as the final budget for the project.
We presented the budget to Shawn who looked over the paper, smiled and then said: 'I find 10,000$ very reasonable and affordable, you will get a down payment in no time'.

The next meeting was scheduled the next Thursday. We waited for more than 2 hours for him and when he finally showed his face, he told us that the USAID thought that the budget for the project was too low! And he asked us to PUMP IT UP!

I immediately felt that there was something wrong. Maybe I had never worked in an NGO before but I know that usually when you apply for funding, the funding organization replies that the budget is too high not too low!

Anyway, we calculated an additional budget for additional hardware and we raised the salaries for the administrator and we added another administrator and we increased the salaries for the programmers as well. He told us that we would need people to check the website on a daily basis and coordinate the requests of the local NGOs for posting on the web pages. So: 'please add the salaries of those people to the budget'.



I said: 'What the hell, add them.'

We presented the NEW financial budget for the project. This time he told us that the USAID needed to see a beta version of the website before approving the budget. We acted respectively, Hasanen and me started working on the website and we finished a beta version pretty quickly. We went back to Shawn and showed him the website off line. He said 'great' and that he would brief the generals next week.

The next week came and we got no news from him. The week after he called Ashraf alone. Ashraf went to meet him and when he returned back his face was so gloomy. I asked him what had happened and he said that Shawn told him to pump the budget UP AGAIN!

This time he wanted at least 50,000$ for the budget. I knew that it was getting more fishy and fishy everyday. But I told him that we should not give up. We calculated the NEW budget and presented it to him. We had to wait another two weeks for an answer from him. After three weeks of stalling and waiting, he called Ashraf again. This time I insisted on accompanying Ashraf to hear what that man had to say. He told us that he has just briefed the generals and they were more than happy to implement the project. However: there is a company that wants to donate money to us, so they suggested pumping the budget UP AGAIN!

I asked him: 'Why don't those companies donate money to us directly'. He said 'No, there are taxes in the US and by donating money through NGO projects, they will get exempt from these taxes'.

I immediately knew that he was bullshitting us but I preferred to wait and see what will happen. After a minute of silence he said: 'You have to raise the budget to 100,000$!!!!!!'



100,000$ for designing a lousy website. I thought that I was designing google or may be tomshardware guide http://www.tomshardware.com

I realized what was going on. The USAID so generously supervising the 'Reconstruction Projects' was nothing but a burglary organization. They would never mind to sell a cup of water for Iraq for 300$ and when you object they reply: 'We are sorry, but there are security threats here and we can't work with a standard budget here'. And combining with this an M240 machine gun, you have nothing much to say. Keep your mouth shut and stay out and if you persist you will get killed or go to prison in the least state. It was a disappointment for me, to see billions of dollars go to the pockets of the American companies and contractors.

There were many NGOs created after the war. Only a few of them got funding from the USAID. Not because they didn't have something to present but because they didn't want to participate in virtual projects with huge fundings. Corruption is running through the USAID like blood in veins.

I told Ashraf that I was quitting this project, and with Hasanen he decided to quit the project as well. We needed some time to cover our debts and plan for the next step. Hasanen decided to work in the private sector and now he is an Intelligent Network Engineer in a respected mobile phone company. Ashraf now works as a college teacher in Bahrain in the Gulf University. He teaches Linux and Open Source there.

I stayed in Baghdad for a while. I tutored Linux in the private sector for a while. I believe that when we turned to the private sector, we could function much better than our former experience with Non Profit Organization.

The IOSO is dead now, there is nothing called the Iraqi Open Source Organization anymore. However, the LUG is still there, I trained some people here in Iraq and they are now members of the LUG.


There will always be people in Iraq who will use Linux and who will be part of the LUG.

I'm preparing for my master program in Belgium now. I can't say that I'm very eager to go back anytime soon. The devastating security situation and the frequent electrical cuts and the enormous economic problems make it near to impossible to continue any Non Profit Linux Evangelism mission.

The future will remain anonymous. May be a few years later when everything is settled down and all of the greedy people are tortured in hell we will be able to come back to Iraq and play a more effective role in reconstructing our country.

This was my short version of a sad but enriching story. I hope that you found it informative.


Bassam A. Hassan.
CoFounder of the ILUG,


Vice president of the former IOSO,
http://bassam.iraqilinux.com





That's Bassam's report, colored by his direct experience and his culture.





Respectfully submiited


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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Really a good read... thanks Tom mvermeer 24 1,676 Jun 10, 2005 7:13 AM
Have to say, NGO situation ain't unique to Iraq AnonymousCoward 0 1,480 Jun 6, 2005 5:14 AM

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