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.
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."
Salam Pax's diary is part of an Internet phenomenon that started about 1997 known as Web logs, or "blogs" for short. They are electronic diaries in which authors post their thoughts and experiences.
Their popularity has surged in recent years, and today there are some 500,000 active blogs, Blood said.
Just as cable television news rose to prominence in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, blogs have emerged as a powerful medium in this war, filling an intimate gap that no one knew existed.
Dozens of war blogs have popped up, including "Live From Kuwait
Blog postings appear in reverse chronological order. "Compared to the TV media in particular, the blog allows an historic ordering of the facts," said Alan Nelson, co-creator of "Command Post" (www.command-post.org), a war news blog that's rocketed to the top of the ratings despite being established only recently. "Whatever is at the top of the page is what's happening now."
Anxiety at Bombings
Unlike many of the blogs of war, Salam Pax's shows equal disdain for both sides -- an unfiltered view of an individual caught in the crossfire of war and culture.
"I know saddam is a nutcase with a finger on the trigger," he wrote Nov. 15.
He is no less contemptuous of the Bush administration and United Nations.
"Thank you for keeping sanctions which you knew only weakened the people and had no effect on the government," he wrote Dec. 3. He concluded with an obscenity.
As the war began, Salam turned his attention to the anxiety and spectacle of the bombings.
"The smoke columns have now encircled Baghdad, well almost," he wrote. "The wi[n]ds blow generally to the east which leaves the western side of Baghdad clear. But when it comes in the way of the sun it covers it totally.... We are going to have some very dark days, literally."
Fans from around the world posted Internet messages expressing relief that Salam Pax had survived the first days of bombing.
"Salam Pax is back!" wrote one blogger who goes by the Web handle Sappho. "Go read him. And keep praying for his safety."
Ohad Barzilay, a 27-year-old Israeli blogger and computer graphics researcher, has been a supporter of Salam for months, posting a "mirror," or replica, of the diary on his Jerusalem-based site -- just in case the original should be sabotaged by Iraqi or American authorities.
"I am for the war [and] I know what war is like," he said. "Now that I know someone who's in there, being attacked, I'm quite concerned....[People] can be pro war, but they still care about him."
Beneath the concerns about Salam Pax's safety has been an undercurrent of suspicion: Does he even exist?
Salam's careful though understandable effort to hide his identity has fueled suspicion among bloggers. His site has been described as a plot by the CIA or Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, although it is not clear how his postings could help the intelligence agencies. His status as the only known blogger in Baghdad has raised eyebrows.
Doubts about his authenticity stem partly from the case of Kaycee Nicole, a girl who wrote a heart-rending personal diary about her struggle with leukemia. The blog wove an elaborate tale that ended with Kaycee's "death" in May 2001.
It was all a hoax. A 40-year-old Kansas woman admitted fabricating the blog, although she denied malicious intent.
On the surface, the diary of Salam Pax has the feel of an eyewitness account because it is so rich with detail.
On March 21, for example, he wrote: "We bought fresh tomatoes and zucchini for 1000 dinar a kilo which would normally be 250. And most amazingly the garbage car came around. The Iraqi Satellite Channel is not broadcasting anymore. The second youth TV channel (it shows Egyptian soaps in the morning and sports afterwards) also stopped transmitting."
He has answered critics with a simple entreaty: "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."
As for the even more mysterious Raed, Salam Pax posted Raed's Yahoo e-mail address. Raed did not respond to a request for an interview. Raed's Yahoo profile notes him as Raed Jarrar, an architect in Amman, married, age 24. The description could not be confirmed. Salam Pax's e-mail box is full and rejects new messages, although several people say they have corresponded with him.In an effort to uncover obvious deception, freelance journalist Boutin, a former network manager, began a search for the real Salam Pax.
He asked the Baghdad resident by e-mail for a photo or a phone number. Salam Pax refused.
He then attempted to trace the origin of the electronic information sent by Salam Pax's Web address.
While Boutin did not have enough information to pinpoint Salam Pax's location, he said the computer addresses he was able to trace were in the same range as those previously used by Uruklink, Iraq's state-run Internet provider. Another electronic trace followed Salam Pax's postings as far as Transtrum, a unit of the Lebanese Internet provider TerraNet.
Absent any obvious ruse, the blog seemed plausible, Boutin said.
"In the end, it's still a matter of faith," Boutin wrote in his own blog. "Yes, I think he's really in Baghdad. And so far, he's still alive and well."
Purported details of his life have begun to leak out. With the deepening of the war, some of his supporters have urged him to stop posting for his own safety -- saying the Iraqi secret police may already be on his trail.
The bombings have gone on every day, and in the blogging world there is a fear that amid the destruction of the war, Salam Pax's cyber monologue will simply stop -- and that they will never know what happened.
"Is he going to post again, or is someone going to put a 2,000-pound bomb in his neighborhood?" Nelson asked.
Since March 24, Salam Pax has been silent.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The dispatches from the unidentified Salam Pax, supposedly a twentysomething Iraqi living in Baghdad, have become popular reading on the Web. Below are passages from his electronic diary, "Where Is Raed?":
Sept. 24, 2002: "Raed are you really going to stay in jordan and miss all the action?? don't get married come here and let's get bombed."
Oct. 12, 2002: "Don't expect me to buy little American flags to welcome the new Colonists.... and how does it differ from Iraq and Britain circa 1920. the civilized world comes to give us, the barbaric nomadic arabs, a lesson in better living and rid us of all evil."
Oct. 23, 2002: "Excuse me but I need to listen to some angry-boy-music and bang my head against a wall and bleed, it will make me feel better I'm sure. have I told you already that I hate the world?"
Jan. 12: "Sorrow is never singular. It always comes in multiples. Raed's aunt has passed away yesterday.... Raed, I can't reach you. Your cell phone has been turned off for days and you don't answer emails. I wish I could be there with you. Today a colleague at the office came to our house to tell us his son has died of brain hemorrhage this morning.... his son is two years younger than me.
March 16: "A whole nation, a proud and learned nation, was devastated not by the war but by sanctions. Our brightest and most creative minds fled the country not because of oppression alone but because no one inside Iraq could make a living."
March 20: "Today the Ba'ath party people started taking their places in the trenches and main squares and intersections, fully armed and freshly shaven. 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 (that was at the end of our street) other places you would see them sitting bored in the sun."
March 21: "We also saw the latest Sahaf show on Al-Jazeera and Iraq TV, and the most distressing minister of Interior affairs with his guns. Freaks. Hurling abuse at the world is the only thing left for them to do. On BBC we are watching scenes of Iraqis surrendering. My youngest cousin was muttering "what shame" to himself, yes it is better for them to do that but still seeing them carrying that white flag makes something deep inside you cringe."
March 23: "We start counting the hours from the moment one of the news channels report that the B52s have left their airfield. It takes them around 6 hours to get to Iraq. On the first day of the bombing it worked precisely.... While buying groceries the woman who sells the vegetables was talking to another about the approach of American armies.... If Um Qasar is so difficult to control what will happen when they get to Baghdad? It will turn uglier and this is very worrying."
For links to a variety of Web logs covering the war in Iraq, go to http://www.latimes.com/iraqblogs.