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    Blogs over Baghdad, or: Where is Salam Pax?

    By TOM DRURY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 30, 2003

    There are, according to people who keep track of such things, 111,000 personal journals or "Web logs" on the Internet. One of them operates out of Baghdad.

    Or seems to. Like most things on the Web, the location and identity of the writer who calls himself Salam Pax can't be nailed down. But his sardonic voice and eye for wartime detail -- plus the fact that he may be the only resident Iraqi speaking freely to an international audience -- have won him many believers.

    "Today the Ba'ath party people started taking their places in the trenches and main squares and intersections, fully armed and freshly shaven," Pax wrote 10 days ago. "They looked too clean and well groomed to defend anything. And the most shocking thing was the number of kids. They couldn't be older than 20, sitting in trenches sipping Miranda fizzy drinks and eating chocolate."

    Who is Salam Pax? By his own account, a gay architectural engineer in his late 20s with steady work but an unsteady paycheck. A speaker of Arabic, English and German who has spent half his life outside Iraq and is conflicted about his Muslim roots, more interested in the Tao Te Ching than the Koran. A fan of Bjork and Coldplay and William Burroughs; not a fan of Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush:

    "What is truly ironic is that the Bush administration is using the same argument Saddam used to invade Kuwait for his invasion of Iraq. National security concerns and helping the poor bastards over there to get rid of that evil government. At least try to be original. I tell you it is about greed and power, it always is. Me and you are only a future statistic. The question is in which column will we be listed, dead or injured."

    Salam Pax is not his real name. It is a pseudonym composed of two words for peace and evidently a play on Salman Pak, an Iraqi weapons development site. Pax has been posting his Web log (or "blog") since September. He has a friend called Raed whom he often seems to be looking for and talking to in his Web messages. The title of Pax's blog (www.dear_raed.blogspot.com) is "Where is Raed?" As the war has drawn near and now begun, the site has risen from obscurity to No. 4 on the blog charts.

    "There's a very sharp dichotomy between people who believe he's more real than Peter Arnett and those who feel he's some sort of a hoax or propaganda," says Paul Boutin, who writes about technology for Slate and Wired.

    Some have speculated that Salam Pax is Mossad or CIA. But, as Boutin says, "He should stick to his point if he is."

    In other words, if this is propaganda, it is incredibly subtle, woven into a naturally rambling format employed by bloggers everywhere. "They can't find a point and make it," says Boutin. "He's not trying to make some point about Iraq or civilization or government or Saddam or anything. He's just babbling about his life." (Yet Boutin is a fan: "I feel like I sort of know someone over there who isn't just reading a script on television.")

    What politics there are tend to come in ironic asides or earnest explanations perhaps born of that most credible of youthful emotions, defeated idealism.

    "Peace and Security. Ha," Pax wrote in an entry dated Oct. 23, quoting a U.S.-British draft of a U.N. resolution. "Bomb us already, stop pussyfooting." (Several days later, after another Internet writer, from Indiana, had interpreted this remark as favorable to "prospective liberation," Pax provided a helpful link to dictionary.com's entry for "sarcasm.")

    Two weeks ago, with war just three days away, Pax provided further clarification:

    "No one inside Iraq is for war (note I said war not a change of regime), no human being in his right mind will ask you to give him the beating of his life, unless you are a member of Fight Club that is, and if you do hear Iraqi (in Iraq, not expat) saying 'come on bomb us' it is the exasperation and 10 years of sanctions and hardship talking."

    Undoubtedly the riskiest part of the Web site's high-wire act is its criticism of the Iraqi government. Saddam Hussein is "a nutcase with a finger on the trigger," the president's son Uday "a sick monster" whose mere presence in restaurants causes families to walk out, quietly. After watching television coverage of Iraqi officials on the third day of the war, Pax writes, "Hurling abuse at the world is the only thing left for them to do."

    Slate's Boutin thinks that Salam Pax is pretty much who he says he is. Boutin corresponded with Pax via e-mail and traced an originating address as far as Terranet, a service provider based in Lebanon. Moreover, Boutin on his own Web site has cited "senior network engineers" who having examined Pax's e-mail headers believe they are from Iraq. (The host of Pax's Web log is in Santa Clara, Calif.)

    As for criticism of the Husseins, Boutin speculates that, at least when it comes to the wired world, Iraq may not be "as airtight as we think it is" -- the Internet may not matter all that much to the authorities.

    But Judith Kipper, a Persian Gulf expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, is not so sure. She has read Salam Pax's writing, finds it authentic, and thinks he is running considerable risk.

    "This is very gutsy," she says, "because the security forces may be busy at the moment, but they do look at these things and word is getting around. He may just feel that time is on his side and he can avoid detection."

    At times the growing notoriety of Pax's blog has rattled him. "Please always remember that I am no authority on anything," he wrote on Feb. 14 after a piece had appeared in Wired. "Quoting me like the journalist did there makes me a bit nervous, Salam says this, Salam says that. Big media scares me. Trouble is never far away."

    Again, it all comes down to who and where Salam Pax is. He addressed the subject on his Web log March 21:

    Please stop sending emails asking if I were for real. Don't believe it? Then don't read it. I am not anybody's propaganda ploy, well except my own.

    An e-mail to Pax received no answer. He last posted to his blog on March 24, reporting that Internet service had been out two days.

    "That's the number one question that people have," says Boutin. "Is he still posting? Is he still alive?"

    -- Tom Drury Perspective editor of the Times.

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