As US forces rolled into Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, the Ace of Spades in the US Army's deck of cards of wanted Iraqis, did a spectacular vanishing act. Many Iraqis believe their former leader, a lifelong dabbler in the occult, will never be found by coalition troops scouring the country. His trick, they say, is a magic stone that protects him from harm.
Mr. Hussein and his inner circle were obsessed with the dark arts: his son Uday even advertised on his own television channel for those with supernatural powers to come forward and serve the ruling family. In a country where decades of isolation and repression have cut people off from the modern world, belief in the occult is commonplace, and Iraqis regularly consult soothsayers to find stolen cars or tackle mental illness. Many believe Hussein has shrouded himself in his dark powers.
"Saddam never takes any step unless he consults with his magician advisers. I'm sure he has two or three with him now," says Qassem Ali, an electrician in Baghdad.
"He brought them in from China and Japan because he wanted specialists," says colleague Ali Mahdi. As they talked, a crowd gathered around to earnestly chip in their stories about Hussein's supernatural prowess.
"Saddam is indestructible because of these powers," Mr.
Mahdi insists. Such a belief, widely but by no means universally held here, has contributed to the atmosphere of fear and mistrust that is hindering coalition attempts to rebuild the country.
Coalition leaders admit that a key to convincing Iraqis that the old regime is dead is capturing or killing the bogeyman who still casts a long shadow over Iraq.
The most commonly held view in Baghdad is that Hussein wore a "magic" stone around his neck, which warded off assassins' bullets.
"It's all true about the magic stone," says car dealer Mokhaled Mohammed, sitting in a cafe on Baghdad's upmarket Arasat Street. "First of all, he put it on a chicken and tried to shoot it. Then he put it on a cow, and the bullets went around it."