By: Anick Jesdanun, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Both sides in the Iraq war are now restricting the use of satellite phones.
The U.S. military sees units from an Arab-owned provider with built-in satellite positioning as potentially betraying the location of its units while Iraq’s government apparently wants to be able to ferret out American agents and commando units.
Iraqi television on Wednesday carried an official appeal to the population to hand over their satellite phones so it is easier to identify “infiltrating” transmissions.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that U.S. commanders were expanding to all of Iraq a ban on the use of satellite phones from the Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Co. of the United Arab Emirates.
The indefinite ban applies both to U.S. units and the journalists traveling with them, said Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan in Washington. He said the decision was made for security reasons but that he did not know the technical details.
U.S. commanders had imposed a ban late last week in some areas, calling it temporary and saying they feared the Iraqis could pinpoint the location of front-line units with Thuraya phones.
Satellite telephones have been a lifeline for reporters in the region and are also routinely carried by U.S. troops.
Unlike other major satphones, Thurayas can use the U.S. military’s global satellite positioning system, or GPS, for navigation purposes. The GPS system relies on radio signals from a constellation of more than two dozen satellites and has broad military and civilian uses.
Jamal Aljarwan, Thuraya’s executive director of business development, said Tuesday from Abu Dhabi that the Pentagon’s concerns appeared to result from “a misunderstanding,” probably about the phones’ features.
Thuraya says its phones are accurate to within 100 yards, but company chairman Mohammad Omran says subscribers must activate the phones’ GPS function to be tracked. With the GPS function activated, the phone can send a short message with location details.
It is theoretically possible to locate a sat phone that lacks GPS functions by measuring the direction of its signals from at least two locations.
It would be “expensive but feasible” for the Iraqis to acquire the equipment to do so, said Michel Fattouche, chief technology officer at Cell-Loc Inc., a Calgary, Alberta, company that makes locating equipment for cellular networks.
They could conceivably locate satellite phones within about 6 miles of the locating equipment, with an accuracy of 300 feet to 1,000 feet, he said.
Fattouche called Iraq’s banning of unapproved satellite phones crucial, since they would otherwise have no way of telling which transmissions come from the enemy.
The Iraqi statement said a “not small” number of Iraqis have satellite phones. It appealed to those “working with the enemy” to surrender such sets to authorities. Failure to do so, it warned, would leave authorities with no choice but to treat offenders as spies.
Wayne Madsen, a former U.S. National Security Agency analyst now with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that what little locating capability the Iraqis may have had has probably been destroyed.
Last week’s initially limited ban by the U.S. military left news organizations scrambling.
Many journalists have had to replace Thurayas with phones from rival carriers, including Iridium Satellite, an Arlington, Va.-based company whose biggest single client is the U.S. Department of Defense.
“We sent journalists into the region with several kinds of sat phones to give them the greatest possible flexibility,” said Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of The Associated Press. “Being unable to use Thurayas is an inconvenience, but our folks have so far still been able to file stories, photos, and audio from the field.”
AP correspondent Hamza Hendawi in Baghdad and technology writer Peter Svensson in New York contributed to this report.