BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad, not far from the crater that until last week was the Al Saah restaurant, Mustafa, a 39-year-old watch merchant, is certain of one thing: "I don't think he's dead."
He, of course, is Saddam Hussein, who remains a spectral force in this capital one week after U.S. forces arrived and eight days after four 2,000-pound, precision-guided bombs obliterated a quarter block of this city in a U.S. effort to kill him.
Mustafa is certain the attack missed. Trustworthy friends spotted two of Saddam's best known bodyguards stepping into a motorcade near the restaurant and slipping away 30 minutes before U.S. warplanes dropped the bombs, Mustafa said, meaning Saddam was leaving the area as well.
There was no sign Wednesday that U.S. forces are looking for Saddam's remains at the restaurant, though there was a steady stream of pedestrians who stopped and gawked at the rubble-filled hole. Four mourning banners mark the site for people known to have died; how many others might have perished is not known.
But without a body no one will be convinced that one of the dead was Saddam. And that means few Iraqis can really believe Saddam and his supporters are gone.
"I went to the bakery and they had two pictures—Jesus and Saddam Hussein," said a 65-year-old Christian Iraqi named Gladys, arching an eyebrow.
She only ventured from her five-room home for a few hours this week, the first time since March 20, to buy tomatoes from street vendors and search for other fresh food for her children and grandchildren who barricade themselves inside nightly. Her son-in-law, Nabil, sits up with three guns to guard against looters.
To believe it is over, she said, "I must see it" on TV.
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The mystery surrounding Saddam is only deepened by the disappearance of some of the best known, most dreaded members of his Baath party. Not killed, not captured, not lynched by angry neighbors. Just vanished. The same question passes Iraqi lips again and again: Where have they gone?
"Nobody knows. Maybe he is near here," says Mustafa, lowering his voice outside his house in Mansour.
"I guess that some of them are here still, hiding," he said. "Others are maybe hiding in their villages. It's something incredible; I can't believe it."
Also among the vanished are the 70 or so Baath Party families who, Mustafa said, lived in Saddam's so-called safe houses, private homes where their job was to prepare special meals three times a day, in case the president decided to come by and stay.
He said he'd heard about the network from his customers, some of whom were safe-house residents. They said one never knew when the president might pop in. Partly, they did it because of the honor of Baath Party membership, and partly because it was their job.
"And maybe a third thing," Mustafa said, "they're afraid."
A sense of insecurity permeates almost every conversation these days: Where are they? Will they come back? How did they flee without a trace?
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To be sure, day by day, Iraqis now more freely say how much they hated Saddam's rule, and add that they are glad the party of 5 percent of the population is gone. But almost in the same breath they speak wistfully of the lost social order that broke down when the Baath Party collapsed and was replaced by looting and nightly explosions that echo around the city.
Also, they wonder, when will the Americans leave? Long before Saddam, they remind, Baghdad never accepted foreign rule.
"I know that they're gone and sometime later they're going surface. But Saddam Hussein, I think he's in South America," said Saad al Saadi, a 42-year-old electronic engineer who is a nephew of the only senior member of the regime to turn himself in, Lt. Gen. Amir al Saadi, Saddam's science adviser.
Their stealthy escape did not surprise Saad al Saadi at all. "They had all the facilities to create a convoy and all kinds of cars, ambulances and taxis" to slip past coalition forces and out of the country, he said. Alternately, they could be hiding somewhere in the desert in northeastern Iraq, where he said he heard the regime had dug secret caves "where you could hide a whole army."
Among those still missing and unaccounted for:
_Mohammed Sahaf, the loquacious information minister, who denied that U.S. troops were in Baghdad until hours before they could burst through the gates and take him away.
_The president's powerful sons, Uday and Qusai, who dueled in the peoples' imagination for the role of heir apparent.
_Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, the most senior Baath Party Christian, who gave the smoothest of sound bites about evil American intentions.
_Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, who had perfected a sinister sneer.
_And, above all, the man people here simply call Saddam.
Rula Imami, 26, stayed home throughout the war, mostly praying, she said, that the regime would fall and innocent people would be spared the nightly assaults, brought on by the military moving anti-aircraft batteries and missiles into her Zayouna neighborhood.
"Saddam Hussein? I don't know. I'm hoping he's dead. Especially me, I lost my father from him, from this regime," she said. He went off to fight the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and never came home.
"I've always hated him because of this," she said. "But they said the president is hidden somewhere—Russia, maybe Tirkit, maybe underground. So I'm hoping to see him on TV to be sure, if he is dead."
Even if he turns up dead, she'll still be worried.
"He was always scaring the people," she said. "But I'm worried because I think the one who comes after will be worse."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.