- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

BAGHDAD — Zeyad is a 27-year-old dentist. He works at a government clinic with broken dental chairs and no anesthetics. At home, when gunfire rattles his neighborhood, Zeyad’s family cowers in one room murmuring prayers while he types away on his computer.

Zeyad is a blogger. Unheard of when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, Web logging is providing ordinary Iraqis with a voice — a chance to say what they think and reflect on the changes reshaping their country.

For the outside world, the mainly anonymous Internet postings offer raw insider views and insights in which sorrow and joy, hope and despair, fear and defiance coexist amid the violence of the insurgency and sectarian divisions.

“The West should listen to the opinions of the simple Iraqi people. They only hear from analysts and politicians,” said Zeyad, who agreed to discuss his blogging on the condition that his family name not be revealed, for security reasons. “This is a good window into the world.”

Zeyad penned the first entry in his Healing Iraq blog in October 2003 about the country’s new currency, calling it “wonderful and so symbolic” that the distribution of the new dinar coincided with the anniversary of a referendum that re-elected Saddam. Zeyad has gone on to chronicle his thoughts on all aspects of life in the new Iraq.

A self-described agnostic born into a Sunni Muslim family, Zeyad reacted angrily in 2003 when the interior minister announced that people found eating in public during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan would be detained for three days and fined.

“I wanted to kill someone after reading all that,” Zeyad wrote. In later postings, he seethed at the growing influence of Muslim clerics, saying it made him fear for the future of freedom in Iraq.

“I want to be able to buy my vodka without having to look left and right. I want to be able to walk with my girlfriend in the street while holding hands together without people glaring at me. Is this TOO MUCH to ask?” he wrote. “Do I have to immigrate and leave my country for wanting to do all that?”

But there were moments of pride and exhilaration, too.

For instance, when Iraqis voted for an interim legislature in January 2005 — their first democratic election in decades.

“Hold your head up high. Remember that you are Iraqi,” Zeyad wrote that day.

“My mother was in tears watching the scenes from all over the country,” he added. “Iraqis had voted for peace and for a better future, despite the surrounding madness. I sincerely hope this small step would be the start of much bolder ones.”

More recently, his blog has tackled grimmer subjects: explosions, assassinations, street fighting — common themes in many Iraqi blogs.

“Please don’t ask me whether I believe Iraq is on the verge of civil war yet or not,” Zeyad wrote. “All I see is that both sides are engaged in tit-for-tat lynchings and summary executions.”

Zeyad said Health Ministry officials deem the trip to his clinic on the outskirts of Baghdad too risky. That’s why the chairs haven’t been fixed and anesthetics not provided. “We don’t work,” he said.

Still, Zeyad knows that under Saddam’s regime, he couldn’t have dreamed of having a blog, let alone publicly criticizing the government.

Like Zeyad, who moved with his family to Britain when he was 1 and returned to Iraq at 7, most Iraqi bloggers seem relatively young and well-educated — and they write in English. Although they often mull over the same events, their opinions vary, often along sectarian lines.

Take a March 26 raid by U.S. and special Iraqi forces on a mosque compound in northern Baghdad during which at least 16 persons were killed.

Zeyad wrote simply that American soldiers clashed with Shi’ite Muslim militiamen who resisted the search, but another blogger who uses the pen name Hammorabi took a sharply different view.

“American forces’ crime against the worshippers,” read a headline in Hammorabi’s blog. “The killing of the worshippers in al-Moustafa mosque by the American forces should be investigated and those who are responsible for it should be punished.”

Some bloggers scorn the “men in black” — Shi’ite militiamen accused by many Sunnis of targeting them. Others lash out at “terrorists,” an apparent reference to Sunni insurgents frequently attacking Shi’ites.

The third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq also evoked divergent emotions among bloggers.

Although lamenting the violence in Iraq, a blogger who uses the pseudonym the Mesopotamian praised the war that ousted Saddam.

“The blood and sacrifices by the American soldiers and people will never be forgotten,” the Mesopotamian wrote. “It was right, it was just and it was ordained by God that a murderer and tyrant should be overthrown.”

Not really, argued a blogger who calls herself Riverbend. Writing in her Baghdad Burning blog, she said the war “marked the end of Iraq’s independence.”

“I don’t think anyone imagined three years ago that things could be quite this bad today,” Riverbend wrote. Her writings brought international attention to Iraqi blogging. Some of her blog entries were published in a book that is available in the United States and Britain and that won her a Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage.

Her Web musings, often critical but also sprinkled with humor, have drawn mixed reviews, with some readers questioning whether she really is an Iraqi woman.

She hasn’t been deterred, sharing her dismay at the hardships of daily life.

“The thing most worrisome about the situation now is that discrimination based on sect has become so commonplace,” Riverbend wrote. “The typical Iraqi dream has become to find some safe haven abroad.”

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