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Time of blogs and bombs

Internet journals, said to be written by everyday Iraqis, paint a gripping picture of life on the war front.

December 27, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

"Baghdad Girl" fills the pink pages of a Web log with photos that show a skinny, dark-eyed teenager hugging her cats, and classroom essays beginning with such sentiments as: "Childhood is a beautiful stage in our life."

The childhood she describes as her own has become a lot more complicated.

"The day before yesterday a big bomb exploded in Baghdad in Al-Rabee Street near my house," the Web log, or blog, reads. "A lot of people died in that explosion, and a lot of cars were burned and so were the shops. The man who did this has killed a lot of people. And I'm so sorry for losing lots of Iraqi people."

Baghdad Girl identifies herself as 13-year-old Raghda Zaid, one of a growing number of Web diarists who are creating Internet sites to post intimate accounts of life in wartime Iraq. Experts say these bloggers put a personal voice on the conflict that reaches beyond newspaper headlines or television footage.

Most of the bloggers use pseudonyms, making skeptics wonder who they are, what their motives might be, and whether they're even blogging from Iraq. But a handful have emerged publicly, and one -- Salam Pax, the pseudonym of an architect and translator known as the "Baghdad Blogger" -- has become a cult figure. His blog has been published as a book, "Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi," and he has a film deal. But he has still not revealed his identity beyond a small circle of journalists and friends.

In its December issue, Foreign Policy journal calls the war in Iraq "blogging's coming-out party," saying Pax and "myriad other online diarists, including U.S. military personnel, [have] emerged to offer real-time analysis and commentary."

"I get the sense that one reason the Iraqis blog is that they don't feel that their lives and reactions to what is going on are understood in the outside world," says Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "They know the world's listening."

Because of safety constraints, "it's harder and harder for journalists to get out in the field and interview Iraqis," says MacKinnon, a former CNN bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo. "The Web can get these voices out easily and cheaply."

MacKinnon invited two Iraqi bloggers to join other Web diarists from around the world at a Harvard conference Dec. 11. The bloggers, Omar Fadhil, 24, and his brother Muhammad, 35, both dentists, are two of three diarists for "Iraq the Model," which has won plaudits for covering U.S. policy developments overlooked or misreported in the U.S. press.

But the blog has also drawn sharp scrutiny for its unabashedly pro-U.S. stance, which places it in contrast to other Iraqi blogs and polls of Iraqi people. Some U.S. bloggers have even tagged the brothers "propagandists" -- which they vehemently deny.

"At the beginning, they said, 'You are not Iraqis living in Iraq. Now they say we are recruited by the CIA," Omar lamented at a recent gathering at the Hollywood Hills home of U.S. blogger Roger L. Simon. "Maybe we are CIA agents and we don't know," his brother joked.

They have gotten the attention of U.S. policymakers. The brothers were invited to a meeting with President Bush at the White House on Dec. 9. "He said, 'Feel comfortable. You have a friend here,' " Muhammad recalled.

The Fadhil brothers say they receive no U.S. government support. They explain that they were shown how to set up the blog on a free Internet site, www.blogger.com, by another Baghdad dentist who is the author of another Web log, "Healing Iraq."

In a recent entry of "Healing Iraq," the author reported that he walked out of his front door one morning and found himself face to face with hooded, armed insurgents, who were setting up a checkpoint and ordering parents and schoolchildren out of the area.

"We watched them from behind the door with my mother frantically trying to get us inside," he wrote. "Tens of voices on the street were chanting [Allah is Great] and the ground beneath us suddenly shook from a nearby explosion. The shooting was frantic now and a series of explosions followed. Everyone in the house rushed to open windows to prevent their shattering from the pressure."

The Fadhil brothers say they are also acquainted with the author of "A Star From Mosul," a 16-year-old blogger in northern Iraq who also writes anonymously. "My name is not Najma Abdullah, and I'm not going to tell you my real name, coz I don't want to get killed," she says on her blog.

Her Dec. 14 entry reported that a neighbor was kidnapped from his bed, a bomb exploded nearby -- and she finally relented and allowed her mother to cut her hair. "I didn't care if she messed it up or not," she wrote. "Nobody will see it since we're not getting out of the house."

It is this mingling of historic events with the banal details of daily life that have popularized the Iraq blogs.

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