Mobile phones unexpectedly sprang to life a few days ago when the Bahraini service provider, Batelco began offering service to foreign registered mobiles.

“They applied enough pressure for us to push the button,” the firm’s regional operations manager Rashid al-Snan said.

“I feel really sorry – sorry for the Iraqis and sorry for the foreigners who were using the network.”

Although few Iraqis have suitable phones the new service quickly replaced pricey satellite phones as a major means of communicating abroad for businessmen and journalists.

But the service provider's intervention threatened to distrupt American plans for a tender next week for three mobile phones licenses it plans to offer across Iraq.

"We have asked them to turn it off," a spokeswoman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) told Reuters on Saturday. "They are not licensed to do that."

Batelco, partly owned by the Bahraini government, has already spent $5million on infrastructure in Baghdad.

Despite the shutdown, Batleco said it planned to persist with its licence application at a tender conference in Amman, Jordan later this week. It hopes to invest $50 million in Iraq.

“If they give us the licence, we could operate immediately,” Snan said. “We deserve more than anyone else to get this licence. We have shown we can do it.”

Lucrative opportunity

“They applied enough pressure for us to push the button.”

Rashid al-Snan, Batelco 

The mobile network licenses are among the most potentially lucrative contracts to be offered in Iraq, where mobile phones were banned to all but senior officials connected to a special network while Saddam Hussein was in power.

The US Army and development workers now use a network in Baghdad built by WorldCom Inc, bankrupt US telecom firm that is doing business under the name MCI – but service is barred to ordinary Iraqis.

Iraq has not yet decided whether to use US technology or the rival, more widespread European GSM system that is used throughout the rest of the Middle East.

Although the GSM system is a global standard, it would be a significant disappointment to US firms who have hopes of building a wireless network in Iraq based on American CDMA technology (code division multiple access).

Qualcomm, the California based company that developed CDMA technology, has been a firm campaign supporter of US congressman Darryl Issa.

Issa is calling on the CPA to mandate the Qualcomm technology in Iraq. But GSM technology would allow Iraqi mobile phone users to travel to neighbouring countries without changing phones.