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Iraq's Net diarist Salam Pax is back

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Chief International Correspondent

WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- Salam Pax is back. The anonymous Iraqi whose cyber-reporting of life in Baghdad during the war made him an Internet star, is back in business, issuing a grim warning after a roving tour through Iraq's postwar chaos: "I came back from the trip seriously worrying that we might become an Iran clone."

"If anyone went to the streets now and decided to hold an election we will end up with something that is scarier than (Ayatollah) Khomeini's Iran," Salam Pax writes, using the nom-de-plume that became famous during the war. It means peace-peace, in Arabic and Latin.

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His new reports are available on the Web at dearraed.blogspot.com, and are being promoted in the United States on ElectronicIntifada.net and ElectronicIraq.net.

Salam Pax says he is glad to be hosted by them since in Iraq: "the guys at the Internet place wanted to charge 66,000 dinars for uploading 1.2MB of images, around $50 by today's rate. You should see how people react when they tell them how much they charge. Because of the rise in the value of the dinar even rich, rich people from abroad find them expensive and start bartering."

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Salam Pax's tour through Iraq, from Baghdad to Karbala, Diwaniya, Nasariyah and Basra was made with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, which was trying to assess the toll of civilian casualties during the war and before it, under Saddam Hussein's regime.

"The only place which has some sort of an administrative structure left in Iraq after the chaos are hospitals, we meet the teams in various hospitals and medical centers," he writes.

"In Samawah volunteers told us that they were not able to go around the city because everybody was too distressed about the mass graves found at the edge of the city. Many who were buried there were from Samawah. At least they can be thankful that the buried had their ID cards with them and could be identified," he writes.

"All over the city you could see photocopied photos of the executed. Gruesome fact: during the uprising after the first gulf war Saddam's henchmen, in order to move quickly, would put people in trucks and move them to the edge of the city and bury them alive, these are the mass graves where you'll find people still have their ID's, fully dressed only with their hands tied."

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Salam Pax's postwar reporting uses the same readable blend of direct observation and an appealing personal tone that made his war reports into a Net phenomenon, with over 3 million people around the world logging on to read his accounts of life under the bombing. But this time, he has some good news to report.

"Basra is beautiful. We have a bit of a problem with hotels because it is chockfull of foreigners and news people all the places charge outrageous prices. We find a place where we pay 30,000 dinars ($22) for a night; compared to 3,000 (2.2) dinars in Nasiriyah (foreigners pay double that price). But there is great food and the excellent ice-cream place called Kima. No, this is not a paid plug. Go ask for ananas-azbari and be pleasantly surprised, it has frozen bits of pineapple in it. Block those thoughts about cholera and enjoy. Water is a bit of a problem, people in Basra have been dependant on water purified by the Petrochemicals plant or people who have set up businesses to provide clean water, they call it RO water (reverse-osmosis purification). Of course you have to buy that."

"Now there are purification plants donated by Gulf countries but you still have to queue to get it or go buy RO water on the street, its price has gone down after the plants started working. All this is within Basra city. Outside of Basra? Don't ask," he writes. "The police in Basra are much luckier than the police in Baghdad, they get military protection."

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In general, Salam Pax suggests, the southern part of Iraq, where the British are in charge of the occupation, and the southern cities where the U.S. forces have had the most time to restore some public services, the conditions of life are better -- though the Iran-backed religious groups are gaining political ground. And Salam Pax makes no secret of his mistrust of the U.S.-backed Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi.

In Diwaniya, he writes, "The U.S. army was helping the hospital bring back X-Ray machines and other stuff that was stored elsewhere to make sure it didn't get looted. Afterward they stood around for a while, took pictures and let the kids poke their big biceps. "Strong mister."

"Throughout the south in all the hospitals we have been to, there was military presence. In Kut there were FIF (Free Iraqi Forces -- Chalabi's militia) people wearing exact same uniforms as the Americans but with little badges saying FIF. Not high on my top five list. Yes, I don't like Chalabi. Go sue me."

"Having military there makes everybody feel safer, to the point where in Basra, because the main general hospital and the college of medicine are in the same compound, the British forces are making the area safe enough for that college to be the only one with regular attendance and classes."

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"A couple of meters from this scene someone was stacking "humanitarian aid" boxes on a cart and pushing it out of the hospital," Salam Pax continues. "There is absolutely no distribution method. The aid that is coming in gets taken by whomever and sold on the market. You could buy the whole box for 16,000 dinars (a bit more than 16 US dollars by today's rate). Or you can buy only the things you like. Everybody is buying the chocolates and leaving the sugar and rice."

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