BAGHDAD — When Sama Sa'ad gets a call from a prospective customer wanting Internet service, the first thing he does is make sure the person on the phone isn't plotting to kill him.
"We can't go to just anyone who calls us and put ourselves in danger of being kidnapped or maybe killed," says Sa'ad, 29, who owns the Sama Baghdad Co., a small Internet service provider. He says demand for Internet access is growing in the capital, but he complains that security concerns make his job more difficult.
To make sure unknown callers aren't dangerous militants, Sa'ad quizzes them on landmarks in their neighborhood and checks whether any of his customers in the area know and trust them.
"Then we ask (the potential customer) to come to our office and … ask about his occupation," Sa'ad says. Even with all these precautions, he says, "there is still a danger of dealing with people we don't know."
Security issues limit Sa'ad's ability to expand his area of service beyond a mile or so of his office or to hire more than three employees.
Under Saddam Hussein's rule, Baghdad residents had access to a handful of government-controlled Internet centers and a dial-up service that the government owned and monitored. Content was restricted and websites that offered free e-mail were blocked.
By 2004, a year after the U.S. invasion, about 20 Internet service providers were operating in Baghdad. These days, roughly 50 companies offer home Internet access, according to estimates by Sa'ad and Emad Natiq, a network management engineer who works for several of the firms.
Demand has been fueled by Iraqis who use Internet voice software as a cheap way to speak to relatives who have fled Iraq's violence and moved to Jordan, Syria and elsewhere, Natiq says.
"There is continuous growth and development of the Internet industry, but it is very slow and it is not enough to cover the demands of the Iraqi market," he says.
Iraqi Internet customers can often choose from several wireless broadband providers in each neighborhood. They buy a small dish antenna for about $100 from a store or service provider. The antenna receives a signal from a tower owned by a provider such as Sa'ad. Companies compete on price, connection speeds and customer service.
Zaid Mohammed, 22, a dental student in Baghdad's El Beya'a district, says the Internet "is a necessity now because it keeps me in contact with my friends living abroad."
Haider Haitham, 36, uses the Internet to connect his import business to the rest of the world. When he wanted to import furniture from Egypt, he had a friend there e-mail him pictures so he could examine the merchandise without traveling.
"Sometimes, because of the security situation, the mobile networks go down and I become unable to call people," Haitham says. "But the Internet never goes down, so it presents a continuous, uninterruptible means of communication."
Sa'ad offers two speeds for $40 and $50 a month and a two-day trial period. Before the war, he sold computers and spare parts, but now he's doing better.
"It's a good business," he says. "My income has increased since I started it. I've sent my family on vacations, and sometimes I go with them if I am able."