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Where's Saddam? Ask His Sorcerer

Deposed dictator is said to have believed in wizardry, which thrives in Iraq. Hussein's guide to the supernatural asks 'genies' about his fate.

August 17, 2003|Niko Price | Associated Press Writer

HEET, Iraq — The wrinkled old man sprays perfume around the sparse, dingy room, then holds out his hands and feet. He instructs one of his visitors to tie him up, knot the cloth three times and blow on it.

The lights die and small red flashes go off beneath the black cloak that covers a bowl of magic powders and water. The visitors feel pokes, jabs and things fluttering over their heads in the darkness -- "birds," the wizard says. Water splashes out of the bowl.

The genies have arrived, and the questions begin.

Will Saddam be found? A genie answers in the old man's voice: "Yes."

Dead or alive? "Dead."

And the $25-million question: Where is he? "Dhuluaiyah," he says. Dhuluaiyah is a village 55 miles north of Baghdad.

Thousands of magicians, fortunetellers and faith healers make up a huge world of Iraqi spirituality that thrives despite being considered sinful by many Muslims.

But this man is different. He was Hussein's own sorcerer and, therefore, for Iraqis his visions of the dictator's demise carry special weight.

The sorcerer asks that he not be identified; he won't even pronounce the name of the man he once served.

"That man is still alive, so I'm afraid," he said. "I helped him, his sons, his ministers, his wife, his cousins, but I can't mention names. When he is dead, I can talk about him."

According to the magician and several others interviewed in Baghdad, Hussein was a firm believer in magic and even applied himself, with modest success, to "studying the sands" and summoning genies.

He consulted frequently with two magicians from Iraq, one from Turkey, one from India, a French Arab and a beautiful Jewish witch from Morocco, the wizard says.

Hussein is still protected, he says, by a pair of magic-infused golden statues. The deposed president speaks daily with the king and queen of genies -- the same ones who provided the information on his whereabouts.

Other magicians also talk about Hussein, some describing fleeting meetings in which the president measured them up. Several say he has a powerful stone -- or the bone of a parrot -- implanted under the skin of his right arm to protect him against bullets and to make people love him.

Maher al-Kadhami, a Baghdad faith healer, repeated a story often told in postwar Iraq: Some years ago, a fortuneteller told Hussein that he would fall on April 9, 2003. Hussein flew into a rage, killed the fortuneteller and launched a violent campaign against all those dealing in the occult.

And lo and behold, April 9 turned out to be the day the world saw Hussein's statue topple in Baghdad.

Tales like these abound in Iraq and are firmly believed, Islam's abhorrence of witchcraft notwithstanding. Hussein's oppressive rule actually made the magicians stronger, academics say.

"When you are weak, when you are oppressed, where can you go? You can't go outside. You go inside yourself," said al-Haareth Hassan al-Asadi, who studies parapsychology at Baghdad University. "You stimulate the superstitious part of your psyche, which is there innately."

It was Hussein himself who ordered the parapsychology department set up to help him wage psychological warfare during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and later to mind-read U.N. inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to former Iraqi officials.

Al-Asadi reckons that more than half of Iraq's 24 million people use some sort of magic, and a tour of magicians in Baghdad bears out his words.

Unannounced storefronts across Iraq boast a rich array of psychics, fortunetellers, healers and spellmasters, most of whom invoke the Islamic, Christian and even Jewish holy books in their bids to control the genies, or spirits, that many Iraqis believe rule their lives.

In his dingy Baghdad house, Sayed Sadoun Hamid el-Moussaoui al-Refai, 56, squats on cushions and wears a traditional Iraqi robe and skullcap. To demonstrate his prowess, he pushes a kebab skewer through his cheek and wipes away the blood.

His 7-year-old son, Hassan, is his medium. Recently, he says, a family came to ask about their son, who disappeared during the war. Hassan entered into a trance and looked into a mirror.

"I saw him tied up, surrounded by Americans," the boy said. "He was in Basra, but I knew he would be released soon."

Indeed, al-Refai claims, the young man returned home days later, having been a prisoner of the Americans in the southern city of Basra.

"We use the genies or the angels," the magician said. "But we prefer the angels, because the genies lie 75% of the time."

Khalifa Ahmed al-Duleimi, 53, combines spiritual healing and diatribes against the Jews, who he says have sent Israel-educated genies to control President Bush.

Abbas Abdullah, 42, walks in to complain that after 1 1/2 years of marriage, his wife, Zeyneb Fadel, 31, doesn't like him anymore. Abdullah pushes her onto a chair and tells al-Duleimi to exorcise the genie -- a Jew, of course -- that is competing for her affection.

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