Iraq mobile phone firm on PR drive

Egyptian-owned Iraqi mobile phone operator Iraqna has launched a major public relations drive to improve its battered image ahead of a crucial tender in July to renew its lucrative two-year licence.

    Iraqna serves one million subscribers in Iraq

    The company, owned by Orascom Telecom, on Tuesday said it had attracted one million subscribers in the violence-plagued country since the launch of its service 18 months ago and vowed to press on with expansion plans despite the operating and security challenges.
      
    Iraqna's staff members have been taken captive and harassed, its infrastructure sabotaged and its network constantly jammed during US military operations.
      
    It has also been accused of selling subscriptions beyond network capacity.
      
    Iraqna's subscription fees are now as low as $17 compared with $70 a year ago, but service in certain areas goes down for days sometimes. 

    "We are serious about providing the best service despite the many difficulties," Iraqna's marketing director Shamel Hanafi said during a company event in Baghdad.
     
    "As for the network's performance, we have nothing to do with it. There are external forces jamming the network due to the security situation." 

    Soaring profits
      
    The company, which started in the Baghdad area and expanded to central and western Iraq and the southern port city of Basra, reported revenues of $63 million in the first quarter of 2005, up 200% from the same period one year ago. 

    Iraqna faces operating and
    security challenges  

    Despite its problems, Iraqna's service has been popular in a country where mobile phones were virtually non-existent under ousted president Saddam Hussein.
     
    The US military has admitted to jamming Iraqna's network while conducting operations to disrupt communication between anti-US fighters, but the company says its problems are also related to frequent attacks on its infrastructure, especially in the western al-Anbar province. 

    Iraqna has been accused by the government of helping fighters and by the fighters of assisting the US military.
      
    In September, armed men captured a dozen Iraqna employees but later released them, with the last four freed in December. 

    Rough times
      
    Adding to the company's woes, Orascom's chairman and largest shareholder Naguib Sawiris has accused an unnamed Iraqi politician, who is a shareholder in Iraqna's Kuwaiti-owned competitor Atheer, of using his influence to harass and intimidate the company's staff.
      
    Orascom won the licence to develop the mobile network in the Baghdad area in October 2003 during the rule of the US-led occupation authority.
      
    The Atheer consortium led by Kuwait's Mobile Telecommunications Company, one of Orascom's main competitors in the Middle East, won the southern Iraq concession, while another Kuwaiti group, Asia Cell, won the northern one. 

    "We are serious about providing the best service despite the many difficulties"

    Shamel Hanafi,
    Iraqna's marketing director

    Since then all three have been expanding nationwide, with Iraqna taking the lead as the Iraqi government seeks greater competitiveness
      
    The July tender will be open to new bidders, with winners announced at the end of the year.
     
    As it seeks to hold on to its Iraq franchise, Orascom has sponsored the national football team, supported universities, helped people rebuild homes destroyed in the violence and funded a charity started by Kadhim al-Sahir, Iraq's best known pop star.
     
    "We were with you from the start," says a new television spot for Iraqna set to the music of al-Sahir's hit Love Me Without Complications.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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