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WAR WITH IRAQ | COLUMN ONE

War Diary Spins Web of Intrigue

A mystery man's descriptive dispatches about life in Baghdad grip Internet denizens. But is Salam Pax really in Iraq, or is he a hoax?

March 31, 2003|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

A few days after the U.S.-led bombing of Baghdad began, the words of a mysterious man known as Salam Pax raced across the Internet.

"One of the buildings I really love went up in a huge explosion," Salam Pax wrote. "I was close to tears.... It does look that the hits were very precise but when the missiles and bombs explode they wreck havoc in the neighborhood where they fall.... Iraqi TV says nothing, shows nothing. What good are patriotic songs when bombs are dropping."

Amid the ceaseless flow of news reports, video clips and propaganda, the dispatches from the unidentified Salam Pax -- "peace" in Arabic and Latin -- have riveted the denizens of the Internet, becoming one of the most intensely read electronic diaries of the war.

The dispatches began late last year as the bemused ramblings of a supposedly twentysomething gay Iraqi architect living in Baghdad. But through the months of military buildup, and now the war itself, the diary has blossomed into a cultural touchstone of the Internet's avant-garde -- and a mystery that rivals some of the greatest Internet puzzles of the past.

No one knows whether Salam Pax is who he says he is. He has never published his real name or publicly offered identifying information that could tip off Iraqi authorities -- although no interest from President Saddam Hussein's agents has come to light.

Despite efforts by curious readers to trace his identity, he has remained hidden in the dense web of computers that makes up the Internet, lost in a blizzard of bits that can be easily masked, redirected or faked. Salam Pax could be an elaborate fabrication -- one of countless hoaxes and scams that bombard Internet users.

But in the few months that his diary has been on the Web, his words -- truthful or not -- have struck a chord with a culture shaped by the Internet, a place where there are no borders or wars, no "shock and awe" or Scud missiles.

In turns crass and subtle, provincial and worldly, the diary of Salam Pax has become one voice of an Internet generation alienated from nations and tribes but connected to one another in the most intimate digital ways.

"We have met the enemy and he's a lot more like us than we ever imagined," said Paul Boutin, a freelance journalist who has been reading Salam Pax's diary for months. "He sounds like he could be from Mountain View. Web-savvy, ambivalent about politics, changes his mind a lot ... and he doesn't care."

The diary of Salam Pax first appeared Sept. 4 with a posting about a New York Times column headlined "Scent of a Madman."

The satirical piece highlighted Hussein's fastidious habits -- including bathing guidelines enforced on all who meet with him, and his preference to be greeted with a kiss near his armpit.

"A very funny article. Excellent for morning reading with sweet coffee and buns," Salam wrote.

He titled his diary "Where Is Raed?" -- a reference to a close but elusive friend who split his time between Baghdad and Amman, Jordan.

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Not a 'Regular Joe'

From the beginning, there was nothing typical about the diary. Salam displayed equal wit and insight into Iraqi and Western cultures, and claimed to speak Arabic, English and German.

"Neither I nor Raed are 'regular joes,' " Salam wrote in a passage about his friend in October. "Actually most regular joes would look at us suspiciously. I have spent half of my life out of this country and had to be taught how to re-grow my roots by someone who isn't even Iraqi by nationality, he just loves the place (thank you Raed). We both have a distrust towards religion and have read the 'Tao Te Ching' with more interest than the Quran. And we both have mouths which have gotten us into trouble. The regular joe would be more inclined to beat ... us infidels, oh did I mention that I am a pervert as well?? The way I look at men makes them feel uncomfortable."

Salam Pax's Web diary (dearraed.blogspot.com) could have been lost in the din of Internet noise, except that as far as anyone can tell it is the only electronic diary that claims to be written from Baghdad, a city he has evoked in shades of beauty and fear.

"The nights are beautiful with a bright moon when you can see it thru the clouds or sand," Salam wrote in a long entry in late February. "The moon started waning now and getting closer to that scary 'dark of the moon' phase. Most people think if anything is going to happen this month, it will start during the darkest nights."

As word spread through the Internet, the popularity of the site boomed. Last week, it became one of the most popular personal Web sites, according to Daypop, an online rating system. More than 91,000 people have journeyed to the site this month, according to Extreme Tracking, a service that monitors Web site traffic; excerpts have been published in 14 languages.

"He's putting a human face on history," said Rebecca Blood, author of "The Weblog Handbook." "We can all be eyewitnesses with him to what's really going on over there. That is unique. That is new."

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