24 November 2004--Even as Iraq continues to be wracked by fighting, terrorism, and destruction, a United Nations agency based in Beirut has teamed up with Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., to provide computer, networking, and information technology training to hundreds of Iraqi teachers and students. Under a program called the Iraq Networking Academies, teams began their first sessions on 21 August to provide opportunities for more than 500 Iraqis to learn IT skills before year-end and, it is hoped, for thousands more to acquire those skills over the next two years, a U.N. official told IEEE Spectrum .
The level of response has been really fantastic," said Abdulilah Dewachi, a regional adviser on communications and computer networking for the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, the agency in charge of the program. In a telephone interview from Beirut, Dewachi said that despite the rising level of violence in Iraq, 13 university professors from four Iraqi universities managed to make the trek from the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra to Beirut for the first training session. Next they plan to put that training to work by educating others in Iraq.
Iraq's telephone system, at 2.9 lines per 100 people, remains one of the least developed in the region. Until the U.S.-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority granted three cellphone licenses last year to companies from Kuwait and Egypt, Iraq was the only country in the Middle East not to have a mobile network. (It didn�t help when, in late September, three engineers from the Egyptian company Orascom, in Cairo, were briefly kidnapped by insurgents.)
Iraq�s level of personal computer ownership is just above that in Yemen, the poorest country in the region. Still, people manage to connect to the World Wide Web at Internet cafes [see photo, "Sharing Resources"] and through a government-owned Internet service provider that was once run by the old regime�s telecom company. Dewachi said the ISP "is still in operation, but not [being run] very efficiently."
Dewachi is an Iraqi citizen (and IEEE member) who left Baghdad seven years ago. His hope is that the U.N. training program will provide a lift to war-weary Iraqis and help restore faith in the United Nations, which suffered a staggering blow last year when its mission in Baghdad was destroyed by a suicide bomber. Many Iraqis, he said, are fed up with violence. But they are also frustrated that so little is being done to rebuild the country and bitter because of U.S. attacks on civilians--which Dewachi believes are transforming Iraqi youth into insurgents. "People in favor of the U.S. invasion as the only means of changing the [Saddam Hussein] regime were more disappointed than anyone else," he said, counting himself among them.
The first group of trainees in the program were faculty members from the science departments of Baghdad University, Al-Mansour University College in Baghdad, Mosul University, and Basra University. During their four-week session at Cisco�s Networking Academy in Beirut, the educators were brought up to date on information technology and network skills. Upon their return to Iraq, they will use program support to help establish regional academies at their respective schools. Ultimately there are to be 10 local academies, each with 500 students.
The program was endorsed by the Iraqi higher education ministry, which is providing salaries and allowances to the computer instructors working in Iraq. Dewachi said the courses--based on curricula developed by Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems--focus on hardware and software for networking, as well as on the fundamentals of Unix and Java programming. Cisco contributed $1.2 million in equipment, curricula, teaching support, and training materials.
The Iraq IT program builds on Cisco�s extensive networking academies throughout the United States and the world. Since launching these institutions in 1997, Cisco has established more than 10 000 academies in all 50 U.S. states and in more than 150 countries. The Lebanese academy was chosen by Cisco last April as its regional training center for the Middle East and North Africa. Cisco plans to invest between $2 million and $3 million in the center, according to Jacek Murawski, director of the academy program in Beirut.
Cisco is also deeply involved in training programs in Jordan, which hopes to become a high-tech hub for the Middle East. In September, Cisco CEO John Chambers delivered a keynote address to the 2004 Jordan Information and Communications Technology Forum in Amman, praising Jordan�s high-tech efforts, particularly its goal of transforming its IT sector into a $1 billion industry by 2008.
As for Iraq�s attracting high-tech investment, Youssef M. Ibrahim, the managing director of the Strategic Energy Investment Group, a Dubai-based consulting company, believes it will eventually happen, because of the country�s many attributes. Prior to the first Gulf War, he observes, Iraq had the highest percentage of engineers in the Arab world and was the only Arab country with enough wealth to move away from a total dependence on oil as a source of revenue. "There is nothing that says this [success] can�t be repeated," says Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times . "In an ideal world," he adds, Iraq�s huge oil reserves and its rich human resources [would] make the country "a priceless opportunity for investment."