BAGHDAD (AP) – “Breakfast time … Lots of helicopters … Met the president of Iraq … Amazing palace.”

Tweet by tweet, the trip to Baghdad by Jack Dorsey unfolded on the Twitter microblogging network he co-founded.

One of his stops Wednesday: A discussion at the U.S. Embassy with executives from other Web powerhouses such as YouTube and Google on the possible high-tech horizons in a place that still can’t guarantee round-the-clock electricity and whose Internet service is lumbering at best.

Their trip to Iraq’s capital, sponsored by the State Department, was billed as a way to assess the faint stirrings of Iraq’s online culture and possibly inspire future Iraqi Web entrepreneurs.

“There’s no question that there are a lot of challenges here … but there are also a lot of opportunities,” said Jason Liebman, chief executive officer of the how-to video site Howcast.

Also on the trip were executives from AT&T, the networking site Meetup and Blue State Digital, which had a role in the online outreach of President Barack Obama’s campaign.

The nine executives wore boardroom garb – suits and ties – at the U.S. Embassy, where they are staying. Outside the protected Green Zone, it was flak jackets and helmets.

Before leaving Thursday, they will have met with government representatives including President Jalal Talabani, university students and representatives of private companies.

They also got a tour of the newly reopened National Museum.

They said they found Iraqis more concerned about unemployment than security following a drastic drop in violence. And they were surprised by the scenes of everyday life – such as people buying kebabs – which they said contrasted with the past images of bombings.

The Iraqi government has launched a campaign to attract foreign investment, but the executives said it needs to improve its services and do a better job explaining why companies should come.

“I think it’s proven that the demand will be there once the connectivity and infrastructure pieces come together,” said Raanan Bar-Cohen of Automattic, best known for the blog-publishing application WordPress.

Experts estimate just 5 percent of Iraqis have Web access at home and the connection speed can harken back to the dial-up days of the 1980s. However, users can get faster connections at Internet cafes and the Web access on their cell phones.

Zain, one of Iraq’s mobile phone providers, has 700,000 subscribers with Internet-capable cell phones, the executives said.

This was the avenue the visitors found most promising for Iraqis to someday embrace social networking: through their beloved mobile phones.

Many Iraqis – especially the young – depend on mobile service as a more reliable alternative to outdated landlines. Text messages are hugely popular.

“While there are many challenges – and there is definitely a long way to go for Internet access – we were very impressed at how many Iraqis, there is near ubiquity, use mobile phones,” said Richard Robbins, director for social innovation at AT&T.

Dorsey said the executives want to figure out “how technologies like the ones that we work with may help the situation here and may help things move a little big faster and move in the right direction.”

The visitors said they had dinner with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, who has a keen interest in social networking as a help in building democracy.

There are concerns that the rise of social networking could also be exploited as another means of contact between militant groups.

A State Department policy planning staffer who accompanied the group to Baghdad, Jared Cohen, said extremists could use such sites.

“But you know hostile actors can also convene in a coffee shop. They can also convene on a street corner,” he said later in a videolink with reporters in Washington. “The digital space is merely an extension of reality. The same things that you can see happening online can also happen off-line.”

Meetup CEO Scott Heiferman said there will always be a “rogue element” that could use the new Web tool to cause trouble in Iraq. But, he said, “The majority wants to see the country great.”

Dorsey said he was inspired by the trip to step up efforts to make it easier for Iraqis to access Twitter on their cell phones as part of a worldwide effort.

“We just have to work with the local carriers here to make sure that all Iraqis can access the service over (their handsets) first because that’s what they’re using every single day,” he said.

At times, the goals got a bit lofty, echoing the State Department’s encouragement of technology as a way to encourage political participation and battle corruption in developing countries.

In one of his tweets, Dorsey wrote: “Talking to Iraqis to figure out if technologies like Twitter can help bring transparency, accessibility and stability to the area.”

But he also learned firsthand how unplugged Iraq can be.

He noted in a tweet that he finally found a wi-fi network in the presidential palace. “Catching up on the rest of the world,” he wrote. “Lots going on out there!”

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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AP-ES-04-22-09 1758EDT

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