WASHINGTON, Aug. 14, 2008 – Iraq was left behind in the information-technology revolution for 25 years under Saddam Hussein’s regime while the rest of the world moved on, a military official said this week. “You’re looking at a nation that has … suffered from 25 years of tyranny under Saddam Hussein and has not had the things that you and I take for granted,” Air Force Col. Karlton Johnson, communications director for Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, told online journalists and bloggers in an Aug. 12 teleconference.

Johnson said the coalition has a 500-day plan to provide the Iraqis modern information-technology capabilities and, more importantly, to train them to use the technology in their business operations.

“What we intend to do over the next 500 days [is] to take the Iraqis from where they are to the next level,” he said.

The plan, he said, initially centers on equipping Iraq’s Defense and Interior ministries with command, control, communications and computer systems — known in military circles as C4 — to support their security functions.

“When you look at the security environment,” he said, “C4 systems — communications as a whole — [are] important and vital toward not only doing battlefield operations, but also improving ministerial capacity and capability.”

However, it’s more complicated than simply bringing in U.S. solutions, Johnson said, because the Iraqis are so far behind. For example, he said, he has seen an Iraqi office where the method of networking was transferring a USB drive from computer to computer.

“You cannot just come in and overlay a futuristic template against an archaic system,” he said. “We have to understand what types of things they’re capable of doing, and what types of things they’re not.”

For that reason, Johnson explained, coalition technology experts are heavily focused on mentoring and building relationships with their Iraqi counterparts. The Iraqis’ needs and methods are different from those of the United States and Europe, he said, so they need to be involved in the decision-making process for new capabilities.

This approach, he noted, is grooming the first generation of Iraqi information technology leaders.

“We’ve improved ministerial capacity and capability, so they can do this on their own [and] we can move on,” Johnson said. “If you want a process by which the Iraqis are going to be eventually able to self-sustain themselves, you can’t just come in and give them a network.”

While the coalition’s efforts are focused at the ministerial level, Johnson said, he hopes the effects will trickle down to the everyday citizen.

He recalled wanting to loan a CD to an Iraqi friend, only to find out his friend didn’t own a CD player.

“So, when I look at what we’re providing in terms of education, mentorship, [and] training to senior Iraqi leadership,” he explained, “I always have in the back of my mind: ‘This is something that’s got to permeate down to those people who, like this one individual, don’t have things like computers, don’t have things like the Internet.’”

Johnson said it will take years to bring Iraq into the 21st century. But, he added, “I think they’re moving right along at the pace that is comparable with a nation that has been 25 years behind the times.”

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