BAGHDAD — Authorities have shut off long-distance service for government-issued MCI mobile phones here, due to monthly bills as high as $10,000 for one handset.

The Coalition Provisional Authority issued the phones last year for staff in the Green Zone without reliable phone access. The phones worked in Baghdad, but all operated as if in the United States, so even calling an Iraqi line had cost at least $1.25 per minute. And individual organizations using the phones never received bills, leaving the impression that the phones were free.

The decision to cut the service was made by the State Department and implemented by the military.

“Unfortunately, control over the phones was a little lax,” said Col. Evin Planto, director of the Communications Support Office, Multinational Force Iraq.

“Now that we’ve got a more mature phone system, we’re trying to get people to use their desktops.”

Commercial long-distance calls aren’t cheaper via desktop lines, but Planto said office-to-office or DSN calls certainly are. As it stands, the phones can now only reach others of the same type — unless Planto’s office approves an upgrade.

Planto said callers grossly exceeded the government’s budget for the phones, but declined to say by how much or disclose how many phones were in service. An MCI customer representative said the problem was due to a “$2 million bill.”

“It was like, ‘Where do these phones come from? It’s like magic,’ ” Planto said of some customers. “Well, it’s not magic.”

Planto cited “sensitivities” in not disclosing further numbers, but said the problem came to a head when nationals of an undisclosed country repeatedly called home.

Despite the service just being cut in October, the decision to review the phone service was made in August.

“We knew it was going to happen sooner or later,” said Lars Hanson, an MCI manager here.

Planto’s office is also trying to account for all the telephones. Some users took the handsets back to the United States with them, where they don’t function. Others gave them to other units or offices upon departing. That, combined with the fact that the government only received itemized billings following a two-month lag, made policing the system difficult.

Long-distance service can be restored once a request is submitted to Planto’s office and the service is deemed necessary.

“They’re filling out forms, and I review them,” Planto said. “My job is to ensure people have communications, not to ensure people do not.”

Nonetheless, Planto said some request forms are incomplete or contain smart aleck answers as to why the service is required. He turns those down.

“Now,” Planto said, “we have control of the phones.”

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