On television at least, Saddam Hussein is a has-been. That much was clear as a TV on the streets of al-Bayah market broadcast a tape supposedly of his voice on Tuesday, and the few men who stopped to watch shrugged and walked on, saying they had heard it all before.
The tape was the second in a week that was presented as coming from Saddam. The CIA said on Monday that the first tape, aired last Friday, was likely genuine, and called it evidence that Hussein had survived the war.
"Returning to the covert work which we started at the beginning is the suitable way to reach the Iraqis now," the voice said. "This is your basic mission, whether you are Arabs, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Muslims and Christians," it said, asking for those groups to put aside differences and "unify your ranks under one banner, the Iraqi flag, the banner of God almighty."
Every week, the dapper US boss for Iraq, Paul Bremer, vows Saddam will be captured dead or alive, unwittingly giving him the aura of a legendary outlaw who always remains one step out of reach of thousands of pursuers hot on his trail.
"I think the noose is going to tighten around his neck as we get people to cooperate with us on the reward program," Bremer told reporters, referring to the US$25-million bounty put on the fallen dictator's head last week.
In the lore of the streets, Saddam has a dashing profile. He is a world traveler with seven masks, a taxi driver who whispers promises of victory to his passengers, an American agent.
He has been in Syria and Samarra, northwest of Baghdad and southeast, and living luxuriously in California, courtesy of the US. He has been living in a palace underneath Baghdad since the war began. On Monday, there was a Saddam sighting in central Baghdad, prompting US troops to raid a building on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.
On 20th Street in the market, the children gloat, insisting they will hunt down Saddam with their toy Kalashnikovs and golden plastic pistols.
"He's in Adamiyah, hiding, wearing an abaya and a veil," said Sura Nuri, 11, describing the concealing clothing of a conservative Muslim woman.
But her friend Sara Jumal, 9, disagreed.
"He's in Russia," she said. "Everyone on the satellite TV says he's in Russia."
Ahmed Kamal, 13, said, "Nobody can catch him because he has seven masks."
Some rumors about Saddam border on parables. In them, a chance meeting can mean a reward for the humble or a comeuppance for the disloyal.
There is the story about the peasant who hides him for the night and in the morning finds a trove of cash under the bed. Lamia Muhammad, 19, supplied a variation of this tale as she considered a pair of earrings in a gold merchant's shop.
"I heard that he put a veil on his face and visited a butcher, in a car with tinted windows," she said. "The butcher made a great dinner for him, a whole sheep. At the end of the meal he gave the butcher a great reward. And he said, `Take this. This is from Saddam, your uncle.'"
Smiling, the gold merchant, Salah al-Deaicy, hands over a newspaper with the headline, "Saddam is alive and he'll be back on July 17."
Al-Deaicy, seated in his tiny shop in front of a brass scale, has heard all the stories -- the one in which Saddam, disguised by a great beard, and his guards attend a tribal meeting, and listen while the chiefs talk about turning over a new leaf with the US forces. Suddenly Saddam reveals himself.