SAN JOSE, Calif. – Every day, tens of thousands of people turn to the Web seeking updates from a mysterious scribe whose detailed accounts of life in besieged Baghdad have made him a cyberspace celebrity.
Little is known for sure about Salam Pax, whose nom de plume means "peace" in Arabic and Latin. But his Web journal — ostensibly written from his Baghdad home — vividly criticizes the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein and the U.S.-British war on his nation.
"Houses near al-salam palace ... have had all their windows broke, doors blown in and in one case a roof has caved in," Salam wrote in his journal. "I guess that is what is called 'collateral damage' and that makes it OK?"
Salam's Web log, or "blog," has become so popular the company that hosts it upgraded his account for free last weekend. Thousands of e-mails — from fans as well as skeptics who believe he's a hoax — have paralyzed his mailbox.
Salam's journal and others focused on the war have boosted the profile of the so-called blogosphere, which includes more than 1 million blogs on everything from wireless networking to sex.
American and British soldiers, German anti-war advocates and even human shields are providing unique slants on the conflict in their "warblogs."
Few are as intriguing as Salam, who went silent this week, even before U.S. bombs knocked out telecommunications in Baghdad. Fans are concerned for the safety of the normally prolific pundit. His last posting was Monday.
Several e-mails from The Associated Press to Salam bounced, and his provider, Google, doesn't share information about individual bloggers for privacy reasons. Salam has mentioned in his blog the need to protect his identity, refusing to send people his phone number or other details.
According to his blog — and intelligence from other bloggers and journalists — Salam is a 28- or 29-year-old Iraqi architect and native Arabic speaker who spent his formative years in Europe.
Raised as a Muslim, he seems to be a secularist. As a gay man living under a repressive regime, he pokes fun at fundamentalism with a wry, profane wit.
He also ridicules the Bush administration: "How could 'support democracy in Iraq ' become to mean 'bomb the hell out of Iraq'? ... Nobody minded an undemocratic Iraq for a very long time, now people have decided to bomb us to democracy? Well, thank you! how thoughtful," he wrote.
Dozens of online discussion forums buzz with speculation. Fans worry Saddam's henchmen got wind of Salam's sardonic accounts of life in Baghdad and his description of Iraqi leaders as "freaks."
One particularly cybersavvy Salam-seeker tested the code behind the Internet address of his blog, called "Where is Raed?" and determined it most likely hailed from Iraq. Other readers insist descriptions of the price of tomatoes and damage from bombings are too detailed to be faked.
Salam's social commentary ranges from banal — random thoughts while driving around the city with relatives in search of bread — to scathing.
"Our brightest and most creative minds fled the country not because of oppression alone but because no one inside Iraq could make a living, survive," he wrote of economic sanctions, telling the U.S. government to "get a clue."
"There are no waving masses of people welcoming the Americans nor are they surrendering by the thousands. People are ... sitting in their homes hoping that a bomb doesn't fall on them," he wrote.
Skeptics question whether a native Iraqi would use slang so fluently. They say he's most likely a U.S. or Israeli agent — and may not even be in Baghdad. Some bloggers don't care if he's a hoax.
"Salam's writings captured a palpable sense of anxiety and frustration — Baghdadis running to the local bakeries and dealing with the price gouging of bread, police standing guard around town trying to keep order," said Andy Carvin, a Washington blogger who regularly checks Salam's site. "He serves as a real-time storyteller who's trying to capture a moment in history for the world to see. ... He's humanizing the experience of war, as good storytellers do."