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Originally published Monday, March 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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In Iraq, soldiers' lives are on the line — and online

The black-shrouded Web site opens with a soldier's silhouette and the pounding rhythm of Nine Inch Nails: "Into the fire you can send us,"...

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — The black-shrouded Web site opens with a soldier's silhouette and the pounding rhythm of Nine Inch Nails: "Into the fire you can send us," the words go. "From the fire we return."

This is the Unlikely Soldier's blog, where a young infantryman known as The Usual Suspect rants and shares his daily experiences in what soldiers call The Sandbox.

"One year ago," when his unit first arrived in Iraq, "we were nervous and excited and apprehensive. ... I was all sorts of optimistic, thinking ... we could be cool with the people, and bring the hammer down on the baddies."

Then, every soldier's nightmare: "A low rumble shakes my Stryker [armored vehicle], and two of our guys are killed by an IED while they were dismounted.

"People emerged from their houses and cheered."

This is the war in 2008 — coming to a computer near you.

Wars have often been defined by the new technologies that shaped them. The Civil War was the first photographed conflict in U.S. history, news of World War II was delivered by movie news reels, television made Vietnam the "living-room war" and Desert Storm was the first war broadcast live by satellite.

Historians will likely remember Operation Iraqi Freedom as iWar v1.0. The Web has done more than quicken reporting from the battlefield; it has made war interactive.

Al-Qaida militants, conservative bloggers, peace activists, Iraqi civilians and the U.S. military all use the Internet to distribute their versions of the truth.

U.S. soldiers return from battle to their rooms or tents, boot up their laptops and log on to let their friends and family know they've made it through another day. If their base is large enough, the Internet service provider offers broadband, and they can make a video call home, watch news reports on the war or post their own versions of life in Iraq to their blogs.

There are hundreds of so-called soldier blogs, some amazing, others incomprehensible. They include Air Force computer technicians writing about hardware problems, an Army lawyer who describes jogging in the Green Zone and a military nurse sorting through her thoughts while tending to the wounded.

While many follow Pentagon guidelines on blogging and register with their command, some soldiers blog without permission, like The Usual Suspect at http://theunlikelysoldier.blogspot.com/. He finds that his uninhibited blog helps him process his combat experiences.

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"As things became worse out here, I finally just let go and wrote what I wanted to — for the most part — and it really helped vent a lot of the frustrations," he said.

Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top armed-forces spokesman in Iraq, said the Internet has been an extremely effective way to deliver the military's own message on the war. It has its own sophisticated Web site, http://www.mnf-iraq.com/.

The Iraq portrayed on the official Web site is very different from what the infantrymen describe — but that's the point. No single source can explain what is happening in Iraq. Now that journalists no longer hold a monopoly on news from the front, a smorgasbord of variations of the truth is spread across the Web.

"The enemy uses [the Internet] to their advantage because it reaches a worldwide audience, very economically and very efficiently," Smith said. "Here in Iraq we have been very successful in taking down the media networks that provide much of the material ... I'd say we have degraded al-Qaida in Iraq's media network by some 80 percent."

The Islamic Army of Iraq, however, maintains an English Web site, http://iaisite-eng.org/, where it assesses daily attacks on U.S. forces and encourages recruits for a regional Holy War that stretches across the Middle East.

But that's not the worst of it.

The site also offers videos of attacks on U.S. troops. The camera focuses on a U.S. soldier standing up in a turret, sometimes eating a meal or otherwise letting his guard down. Then a puff of dust — and the soldier's body slumps.

When these videos appear on mainstream outlets — and dozens do, on sites like YouTube — American bloggers contact service providers and demand that they be removed. Or they may seek help from sites like http://stop-internet-terrorists.blogspot.com/, which points to the videos and encourages people to flag them for removal.

There are fears that warfare is coming to the Internet literally; last year, Estonia was the target of denial of service attacks that some authorities blamed on Russia.

By directing a flood of computers to connect with Estonian sites, the attackers overwhelmed computer servers and shut down Web sites belonging to the president, parliament, ministries, political parties, major news outlets and the country's two dominant banks.

Though the U.S. Department of Defense, has some of the strongest Internet defenses available, Smith said, the Pentagon is preparing for iWar v2.0.

This month the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security will conduct a multimillion- dollar war game called Cyber Storm 2. The first time this war game was conducted, over five days in February 2006, the results were bleak. It showed how hackers and bloggers could use the Internet to take control of public services and the media to dominate the battlefield.

The military hopes to do better this time around.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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