UMM QASR, Iraq—Ahmed Ali believes Saddam Hussein can never die. All his life, the 23-year-old laborer has heard about the dictator's powerful stone.
Saddam, the story goes, had the stone made shortly after he came to power 24 years ago. Its powers were first tested inside a chicken. One of his soldiers pulled out a gun and shot at point-blank range. The chicken's feathers fell off, but it lived.
So the dictator implanted the stone in his upper arm.
As the curtain falls on Saddam's reign, many ordinary Iraqis are reluctant to believe that their much-feared dictator has lost power, much less that he is actually dead. Stories abound of Saddam's mystical powers that have helped him elude assassination attempts and missile strikes.
"The stone makes him bulletproof," Ali, a slim man with a Saddam-style moustache, said in a serious voice.
That belief, common throughout Iraq, presents uncommon challenges for U.S. and British forces as they try to persuade Iraqis that Saddam is gone and will not return. Without a body to display, it may be impossible to overcome the mythical creation of a propaganda apparatus that was bent on showing he was a worthy heir to a long line of Babylonian kings.
Wednesday, there was no word on Saddam's fate. U.S. officials have said they believe he was in a building in Baghdad when it was bombed Monday afternoon. British media reports quoted sources saying they believed Saddam had left the building before the bombing. Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile leader who was returned this week by U.S. forces to Iraq, told CNN that Saddam is in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad.
"People won't believe the regime has ended until they are certain Saddam is dead," said Mohamed Nasar, a doctor at Basra Teaching Hospital in Basra. "They need to see his body."
An intricate web of Baath party officials, spies and informants in even the smallest village in Iraq created a feeling that Saddam is watching and listening in on every conversation. And his use of doubles who strikingly resemble him has only perpetuated his mythical status, particularly among poor illiterate villagers.
"Many average people here fear Saddam," said Ayat Jabar, 28, an Iraqi soldier who deserted in the village of Shuaiba. "He doesn't even have to be here. They fear his ghost. Even now people are probably thinking he's watching me while I talk to you."
Reports that Saddam was killed in U.S. bombing attacks are lies to many.
"He has seven spirits. He doesn't die," Adnan Mohamed Yousef, 32, another army deserter.
Yousef told a story about Saddam's supernatural luck.
One of his elite Republican Guards tried to assassinate him at point-blank range. But the trigger on his gun got stuck as he pointed it at Saddam. The dictator grabbed the gun and said, "This is how you do it."
Then he killed the soldier.
"It's well-known that Saddam's mother is a magician," said Yousef.
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Saad Abdel Rida, 19, has also heard about Saddam's stone. It's blue, he said, and Saddam got it from a fortuneteller he visits often. Spirits from the underworld talk to Saddam through the fortuneteller, informing him who's planning to kill him, said Rida, a college student.
At a bus stand in Basra, Jasim Way, 54, doesn't believe the regime has ended—even though he sees British troops and tanks on every corner of the city.
"He has the stone," said Way, wearing a red-and-white checkered Arab headscarf. "You shoot him and he doesn't die."
Next to him Jawal Kazem, 60, laughed and said: "Saddam makes these stories up. He feels happy that these stories are out there. It's another way to hurt the people. But it's all an illusion."
Inside a crumbling apartment building a few miles away, Mohammed Sadek, 43, a teacher, smiles. He, too, has heard the story of the stone. But he doesn't believe it.
"People are very poor," he said. "They'll believe anything."
Then Sadek said something he would never had said publicly a few days ago: Saddam intentionally creates this image of immortality to make Iraqis fear him.
Yet Sadek, too, finds it hard to believe that Saddam can be captured or killed.
"I think he'll disappear like Osama Bin Laden," he said.
Aboud Muttar, 60, a shepherd, knows Saddam is human. "There's no one who has seven lives," he said.
But Muttar, who has spent more than half his life under the power of the Baathist regime, said it would take much convincing for him to believe Saddam is dead.
"I won't believe it until I see it with my own eyes," he said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.