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Iraqis logging on for news and porn

By CNN's Avril Stephens

The
The "Salam Pax" site became a global hit with the Baghdad bombing.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The Baghdad bloggers became famous for their insights into life during the Iraqi war.

The Internet pioneers courted danger and risked death by messaging to the outside world. Now Internet cafes are opening up across Baghdad giving Iraqis the chance to connect without restriction or hindrance for less than $1 per hour.

The service remains slow and firewalls, blocking access, still exist -- but restrictions imposed by the coalition forces are limited to porn rather than Arabic news.

One of the best known and established bloggers was "Salam Pax" who defied Saddam Hussein's regime with his daily war dispatches.

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What began as an attempt to keep in touch with a friend living in Jordan became a catalogue of war events. At a time of misinformation and confusion, he described where the coalition bombs were falling and how Iraqis were coping.

He risked identification and a knock on the door from Saddam's henchmen.

"After the first three days of bombing you realize this is precise bombing. Instead, you begin to worry about when the troops come in -- how are Iraqi soldiers going to react, how are coalition forces going to be..," Salam Pax reflected of the time.

His messages have since become a catalogue on the work of the coalition forces and the fledgling Iraqi Governing Council.

"The governing council really needs to get their act together," he said.

"They need to communicate with people. They do not talk with Iraqis. We had 30 years of Saddam not talking, so please, talk to us."

He also says U.S. soldiers, often very young and not aware of cultural differences between the two countries, need to communicate better with locals.

"You do not go into a mosque with your boots on, or you do not go into a house until the women have a chance to cover their heads," he said.

Also Iraqi people do not trust coalition forces after rumors that soldiers have taken belongings and money from locals' homes.

He still keeps his pseudonym because the danger has changed. Before, the fear was clear -- it was Saddam. Now, the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and the killing of Iraqi politicians has spread a new kind of danger and worry.

"There are people who are doing a lot of work to get things going. UNICEF is doing amazing things. The bombing was very strange. That is what is different, that is what is worrying.

"All these people coming in and political entities which have been dormant -- it is difficult to be sure anymore."

Also he keeps his pseudonym because he has to live among the people he writes about.

But Salam Pax is optimistic about the future and believes Iraqis will realize that life has improved -- "it just needs patience."

"All Iraqis know very well that there was no way of getting rid of Saddam without outside intervention."

He says the log is not a form of journalism, but a personal record of events.

"This is not like reading a newspaper where it tries to be objective, but a personal view. It goes into texture, and you can relate to it more."

Porn, news and music

It is not clear how many Internet users there are in Iraq -- everybody has a television, but not necessarily a computer. Those who do, live mainly in the cities, and have very little knowledge on how to access information.

But computers are available from abroad and can be linked-up using outside isp lines. Satellite service is also available -- but at a cost of between $600 and $800 per month. The average monthly wage for government workers is between $100 and $400.

Those who are linked often contact "Salam Pax" with requests on how to find news sites, how to download music and how to access porn.

About five bloggers exist in Iraq, two of whom are women.

"Within two months of the war ending, banners were going up advertising the arrival of new Internet cafes," Salam Pax said.

"Restaurants are closing and Internet cafes taking their place. People are packed into them."

Before the war, Saddam allowed Internet access including English-language news. But messaging was banned and Arabic news sites were firewalled. Bloggers had to set up elaborate mechanisms to create sites, while other users used chatrooms on popular sites, such as music sites, to send messages.

But Iraq still lags behind other countries since the fall of Saddam, such as Iran and China.

"It is a question of Internet sophistication," Salam Pax said.

"Iran has a student population interested in news, and they have an art culture including a very successful film industry.

"It has a huge blogging community which is amazingly brave."


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