BAGHDAD — 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."
The interest in the occult was widespread in the regime. Hussein's vice-president, Izzat Ibrahim, was said to have brought a sect of seers and shamans, the Kaznazani, from his native northern district of Iraq and housed them in Baghdad.
The Kaznazani used to entertain Uday in televised spectacles where they appeared to stab themselves with swords or fired pistols into their bodies with no ill effect.
One such spectacle was played on television the day after Uday was killed in a gun battle with US forces.
Customers sitting in a cafe watching the show said they believed the gimmicks were real, though with no close-up shots, it had the appearance of a hoax to the Western eye.
Hussein's all-seeing network of informers and bugging devices, which allowed him to know in advance of any impending plot, also contributed to his reputation for preternatural power.
One of the Baghdad occultists who catered to the old regime was Abu Ali, a tiny man with an ready grin who earns his living by summoning up a jinn, or genie, for the credulous seeking to regain stolen property or lift curses.
"Uday and his guards had an all-night party and fell asleep at dawn, dead drunk. When they woke up they found that somebody had stolen all the money from their pockets. Uday sent someone to me to find the money. I discovered the thief, and they said Uday punished him, though I don't know exactly what happened to him," he says.
In addition to tracking down Uday's unfortunate thief, Ali claims to have lifted a curse on a female relative of Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti, Hussein's cousin and presidential secretary.
Ali recalls how, one day, Hussein's security agents turned up at his house, accusing him of plotting to use his juju against the president.
He says he convinced them he was doing no such thing, then put a curse on the neighbor who shopped him to the police. She was paralyzed after a blood vessel burst in her brain, he boasted.
Alharith Hassan, a psychologist at Baghdad University's Department of Parapsychology, has spent years trying to scientifically debunk such superstitions, a rationalist crusade which cost his department dear in slashed funding under Hussein's occultist regime.
He said Iraqi people had become very susceptible to such myths in the long years cut off from the outside world, and suffering brutal oppression from which the only outlet was religion and sects, which the country's president - whose peasant mother used to read the future with seashells - openly endorsed.
Nearly two thirds of the patients coming to see Mr. Hassan have already visited shamans, who try to exorcise genies with spells and often viciously beat their clients.
"It's all a lot of gibberish," says Hassan, who was however careful not to dismiss the genie, a mythical creature mentioned in the holy Koran.
In such a climate, myths of Hussein's supernatural prowess have survived his regime's demise, and contribute to the climate of fear still hindering reconstruction.
"When they pulled down Saddam's statue, lots of men were jumping on it like monkeys," says car-dealer Mr. Mohammed, a Hussein loyalist. "Then a child came up and kissed the head. Why? I think the child was an angel."
But the magic ran out for Uday and Abdel Hamid, now dead or in custody, and Hussein's legendary luck is also questioned by some occult practitioners.
While putting a man seeking his stolen car in a trance, Ali asked his genie if Hussein would be arrested. The man's hand slowly twisted palm outward.
"Saddam will be caught. I know he has a stone against bullets, but they will capture him," says Ali.