Sad. Hilarious. Terrifying. Deceptive.
Those are just a few of the words you could use to describe the weblog (or blog) writings of an Iraqi man who calls himself Salam Pax. It’s a pseudonym, meaning “peace” in Arabic and Latin. The false name hides his true identity, and so much more.
Salam Pax first came to prominence in the run-up to the Iraq war. As web denizens debated the finer points of France-bashing or the likelihood of Iraq using its banned weapons against our troops, Salam suddenly blasted past several hundred thousand other bloggers to become one of the most read, most talked about bloggers around. The New York Times wrote him up, lauding his education outside Iraq. Wired checked into the tech of blogging from Iraq. Some bloggers became semi-famous by their net proximity to him.
An Iraqi by birth, Salam’s written English was usually flawless, his knowing asides at turns charming, witty, or snide. He was ambivalent about the war to come, not especially eager to see the end of a regime he disliked, yet not terribly eager to see Americans in charge of his country. Once he became famous enough to crash web servers on two continents, debate spread around the Internet like a virus: Was he real? Was he in Baghdad, or tucked away in some London flat having a laugh at our expense? Was he a CIA, or Iraqi, or even Israeli, intel operation? Or just another web hoax? His answer: If you don’t believe it, don’t read it.
We can put several of those questions to rest, but the answers lead to more questions, and finally to some disturbing conclusions. Salam Pax is a real person, blogging from the environs around Baghdad both before and after the war. He has contacted several people outside Iraq, dropping enough snippets of his true identity to make his reality seem all but certain. Several investigations tracing his Internet protocol (IP) and e-mails confirm that he is either in Iraq or going through an extreme and sophisticated effort to make it look like he’s in Iraq (one such investigation is here). Pax says he is a 28-year-old architect in an embattled country, a survivor of war and famine. But he managed to skip both the wars and the famines, suggesting a life of privilege. On his blog he describes watching Iraqi soldiers digging trenches and setting up defenses around the city before the war. As a bright and healthy young man in a nation under threat of invasion, why wasn’t Salam conscripted? Children of the regime tend to escape that sort of thing.
So Salam Pax is anything but average, as he admits. For one thing, he’s a gay secular Arab. For another, Salam managed to get net access often enough to keep the blog up and running for months in a police state beset with an evil tyrant and crippling U.N. sanctions. He is also connected by blood to the former Iraqi regime, and he may be working for it still. His ties to the old power class are proving impossible to cut.
None of which is to say that he is or ever was an agent of Saddam as some allege. He spices up the blog with contempt for ancien regime throughout. His Baathist connection is through his grandfather, a tribal chief, and therefore through his father and uncle, both of who seem to have had some weight in the old regime. His uncle is a banker of some authority in Baghdad, possibly a Baathist financier. His father’s career led to opportunities outside Iraq, rare enough in a dictatorship, and to Salam’s trilingual education in Vienna (in addition to Arabic and English, Salam speaks German). The Vienna route suggests but doesn’t necessarily demand a connection to the Iraqi oil industry — Vienna is OPEC’s headquarters. It’s just as likely that Salam’s father was an oilman as he was just an Iraqi bureaucrat either attending OPEC meetings or keeping tabs on Iraq’s representatives. Salam once maintained his own flat in Vienna, suggesting a freedom to travel that has long been rare in Iraq. And in one interesting post, Salam suggests a familiarity with Iraq’s infamous minders, the thought police who enforced Saddam’s iron rule. He is reacting to a Wired article about Uruklink, Iraq’s sole Internet service provider:
Now, the thing Wired wrote about. Not the emails but the site blocking and 8e6 Technologies, I know I should not bite the bait but I can’t help it. My guess is 8e6 Technologies didn’t know that it was selling the software to an Iraqi entity, it was most probably done by the French who did the internet setup in the first place. Because I was getting a bit worried about who is reading what, I also did a bit of prodding to find out how they decide what to block and what not and it turns out it is the mess I always knew it is.
Q: Google gets blocked for days at a time, why?
A: The reason is that the Mukhabarat minder at the ISP decides that he does not want to bother with doing his daily random checks and just registers the Google URL as blocked. it takes a couple of days and some paper shuffling until someone explains to him that it is not google that is the baddy and that things can be looked for in other places. The firewall blocks URLs and terms within a URL or search request, but that only works with the popular search engines. The rest is done with random checks of URL requests going thru the servers.
In this post we have Salam claiming to “prod” the minder at Uruklink, and claiming to know in some detail how the minder does his job. Again, Salam is by his own admission not the average Iraqi, but this post confirms much more than that. He’s connected and privileged enough to be familiar with, maybe even above, the state minders. But does that make him as spy, or an Iraqi agent of influence, as some suggest? Would an Iraqi agent of influence talk about minders, when he could just pretend they don’t exist? He could use his frequent net access to “prove” it, thereby undermining the notion that Iraq was the police state we all knew it to be.
Along with evidence of Salam’s privileged life is a metric ton of clues that if he’s an agent, he’s an exceedingly sloppy one. He would be closer to Maxwell Smart than James Bond. He answered his email from a legion of readers, establishing relationships with people scattered all around the world. Most of those readers found him by accident. He divulged personal details to more than one person whom he barely knew, and whom he had no idea how far he could trust. The people he corresponded with could just as easily have been intel agents as Salam himself. He had no way of knowing, and in totalitarian Iraq his risks were tremendous. He pasted a pro-democracy banner on his site. He mentioned family members whom he had seen dragged away and tortured by the regime. He dropped so many hints about his privileged past that his Baathist connection is no longer in any doubt. There is also mounting evidence that he doctored his blog to delete some personal references, and did a ham-handed job of it. In a recent post he mentions the flat in Vienna and a friend he shared it with as though long-time readers should know what he’s talking about. An exhaustive search of the site turns up no other references either to Vienna or to this friend. If you run a Google search for “salam pax” yoghurt, it will turn up some posts circa January 2003, but do a word search on his site and “yoghurt” turns up no hits. Google has cached the old reference, which someone has deleted for some reason. It’s relatively simple to smoke out a doctoring like this. Some spy.
During the war his blog went silent, but he kept a running diary that he emailed to an American friend for posting after the war. That diary contained numerous references that could have given away both his blog and his politics to anyone who found it, and would probably have led to his execution. Keeping that diary was a small act of defiance. Salam Pax has been far too inconsistent and even petulant to have been an effective agent of influence. Additionally, his writing doesn’t seem to have changed a single reader’s position on the war. He had both pro-war and antiwar readers; all of the seem to have stuck to their guns in spite of Salam’s “influence.”
Since Salam resurfaced after the war, his posts have generated even more speculation and intrigue. In one of the entries he angrily denounced the Iraqi National Congress for appropriating the elite Iraqi Hunting Club and Mansour Social Club, wondering where he and other members would go for indoor swimming. Members of both clubs are Baathists by definition, but would a spy openly flout that? If it is an attempt to garner sympathy for the deposed Baath regime or its spoiled children, it’s a flop. He says both on his blog and in an Austrian interview that he is working for a group called Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC. This isn’t volunteer work — Salam says he and others are paid for traveling around Iraq to assess civilian casualties from the war that freed his country. Who is paying them? And the organization itself appears shady. It isn’t on any U.N. list of known nongovernmental organizations operating in Iraq, and its goal seems to be tallying up the civilian dead as a way to shame America (CIVIC is doing nothing to account for the thousands that Saddam had executed over the years). He mentions the formation of Hezbollah cells in Iraq, labeling them “anti-Iranian.” That’s simply a lie. Hezbollah is now operating in Iraq, but very much at Iran’s behest. Salam continues to deride every American effort to re-establish order, and denigrates the exiles that have returned to try and transform Iraq into a democracy. He praises the local Communists, who did nothing to liberate Iraq, while denouncing just about anyone who did help in the liberation.
As a supposed insider, his opinions carry weight with his numerous readers in a way that official Pentagon briefings or U.S. press reports do not. They shouldn’t, because those opinions still flow from his old elite ways, and from a lifetime of steep indoctrination in party thinking. He is interested in reworking the truth about the Baath party both to assuage his own guilt and to get himself a leg up in the chaotic new Iraq. But that doesn’t make him an official agent of influence. It just makes him a quirky, iconoclastic Iraqi whose life of irresponsible leisure has come to an abrupt end. His anti-American spin reflects an unconscionable irresponsibility and an effort to save himself, and truth just gets in the way of that. Thus, he is an untrustworthy witness to history.
— Bryan Preston is a writer and television producer. He is also the author of Junkyardblog.