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Unfettered Internet Access Comes to Tikrit

The first words Ahmed Abdullah typed in the Google search engine were "George Bush."

The 19-year-old wanted to access the president's Web site, something he couldn't do under restricted and tightly controlled Internet service during Saddam Hussein's rule.

On Saturday, Saddam's hometown of Tikrit (search) got its first postwar Internet cafe, where residents could browse any site without fear of being monitored or blocked.

"I like it. It's beautiful. There is so much information I can get," Abdullah said, surrounded by U.S. soldiers and commanders who crammed the one-room Internet cafe they had helped set up with $24,000 from the 4th Infantry Division's budget.

The owner, Hashim Hassan, 33, ran a similar cafe for two years before the war. But in those times, "any political sites, opposition or sex pages, were blocked. Now there are no restrictions."

Still, the risks of cooperating with American troops in a region that is a hotbed of Saddam loyalists and resistance to U.S. occupation are high. Last week, in the main street where Hassan's cafe sits, just around the corner from the 4th Infantry's sprawling headquarters, Iraqi guerrillas killed a U.S. interpreter and wounded two soldiers in an ambush.

The blast and shooting shattered the windows and destroyed some of the computers on the first floor of the glass-and-marble building. The opening had to be delayed for a few days.

Hassan said he wasn't afraid working with the Americans would make him a target. But his co-worker, Naeb Hassan, said Tikrit, 120 miles north of Baghdad, remains a dangerous and unsafe place where "some people love Saddam."

"These are bad people, Saddam Fedayeen (search), they don't want U.S. troops here," he said, referring to Saddam's militia that is believed to be spearheading almost daily attacks and ambushes on U.S. troops and Iraqis working with them.

But for Tikrit's young men — no women were sitting by the computers — browsing the Net for $1 an hour is an opportunity to learn, see and explore things unavailable until now.

The cafe has had up to 30 visitors a day since it started operating five days ago, Hashim Hassan said.

U.S. Maj. Troy Rader said the satellite connection and equipment was bought in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai and the work took four months to complete, including the repairs from last week's ambush and a relocation of the office.

"This is the first private, non-government-run Internet cafe in town," he said, adding similar projects were planned for Baiji, Samarra (search) and ad-Dawr — all towns in the region patrolled by the 4th Infantry.

Other favorite sites? Anything that offers clues where Saddam might be hiding. Searching for "Saddam Hussein" was Abdullah's second choice.