KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Go fish and go figure. Those playing cards featuring the most-wanted Iraqi leaders seem to be everywhere but in the hands of many U.S. troops.

Only about 200 military-made decks have been printed and dealt to unit commanders in and around Iraq, according to the Pentagon. But log on to eBay, or search Google, and you can read “em and weep: Thousands of “official decks” are being peddled for $10, $50 and more.

Virtually all are thought to be cheap copies pirated from Internet sites.

Specially designed playing cards have long been popular on the battlefield. The Iraq cards, however, are spreading through the mass media, triggering a collectible craze and becoming part of public speech.

In an interview last week on National Public Radio, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall discussed his recent diplomatic mission to Syria.

“There were several reports of (Iraqi fugitives) captured here lately, like the nine of clubs and the four of hearts,” said Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat.

While the whereabouts of the ace of spades – Saddam Hussein – remained unknown, news spread quickly Wednesday of another face card in custody – Muzahim S’ab Hasan al-Tikriti, former Iraqi air defense commander. The captured queen of diamonds wears a mustache.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who was captured Thursday, is among the most recognizable figures in the deck, though he ranks a mere eight of spades.

“A lot of these names are hard to read and pronounce,” Defense Department spokeswoman Diane Perry said, “but a soldier in the field can identify a face.”

It is not so easy.

Last week at a Baghdad checkpoint, Army Spc. Chris Haslup was busy enough dealing with the hundreds, and often thousands, of Iraqis passing through daily.

Comparing all of those faces with most-wanted pictures would snarl traffic throughout the city and lead to a lot of local anger.

As for using the playing cards as guides, “I don’t think we actually ever got any,” Haslup said. “We did get a photocopy of the cards that was like a most-wanted list. I don’t know where that is, though “

“If we’re going to catch these guys, it’s going to be because the neighbors tell us who we’re looking at, anyway,” he said. “They know these people. They hate these people.”

At the Republican Palace – the center of Baghdad’s new government – Army Capt. Stacey Simms keeps a blacklist of former top officials in a small notebook. Most of these people did not make the cards.

“The people on the cards aren’t coming here looking for handouts,” Simms joked.

At least 12 men pictured in the deck are in custody. A thirteenth – the king of spades, otherwise known as Ali Hasan al-Majid, or “Chemical Ali” – reportedly died in an attack on Basra, but those accounts have been questioned.

Pentagon spokeswoman Perry could not say with certainty whether the cards had aided in anyone’s capture.

“I’m sure they’ve helped, but I’ve seen no official confirmation,” she said.

Given the utter fascination at home, however, legal action was a sure thing.

The United States Playing Card Co., maker of the Hoyle and Bicycle brands, has dispatched dozens of cease-and-desist notices to private vendors selling reproductions of the official most-wanted set. Two of the cards in each deck issued to troops bear images of Hoyle’s trademark joker.

Even though the Cincinnati card maker did not produce the original decks and the Pentagon did not copyright them – making it easy for anyone to reproduce them – profiteers are warned not to sell packs containing the joker cards, company Vice President George White said.

“Since the Department of Defense isn’t selling the cards, we didn’t have a problem with them using our intellectual property,” White said.

The Iraq deck was the brainchild of two reservists working within the Defense Intelligence Agency. The idea applies a wanted-poster twist to an old battlefield tactic.

“Spotter cards” of the 20th century helped poker players in the trenches recognize enemy aircraft, tanks and other weaponry. “Survival cards” used in recent wars distinguished poisonous plants and animals from safe ones.

Even Civil War troops shuffled cards identifying Union and Confederate field generals.

White said his company worked with the U.S. government to develop trick cards for American prisoners held in German camps during World War II. Peel off the back laminate and arrange all 54 cards in a square pattern, White said, “and you’ve got your map-the safest escape route out of Germany.”

The Iraq deck seems crude by comparison. Thirteen cards in each set of the most-wanted officials lack pictures. None of the cards provides descriptions more detailed than a name and former job title.

Information is skimpy even on the aces, which include Saddam’s two sons, Qusai and Odai, whom the cards do not identify as the former president’s sons.

And who is Abid Hamid Mahmud?

Identified only as “presidential secretary” on his card, Mahmud was a top adviser and distant cousin to the former dictator. Once responsible for Saddam’s personal security – and powerful enough to override some government decisions – many experts regarded him as the real No. 2 man in Baghdad.

Now the world knows Mahmud, too: He’s the ace of diamonds.

(c) 2003, The Kansas City Star.

Visit The Star Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.kcstar.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-29-03 0642EDT

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