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Cards as sought after as the Iraqis on them

Collector sets featuring the most-wanted Baath Party officials have been a direct hit with Internet shoppers.

May 10, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Chris Rayneri hasn't seen his dining room table for weeks. Or, for that matter, his coffee table. And he figures he's lucky his wife hasn't left him.

A 30-year-old Bell South employee in Miami, Rayneri has filled every inch of available surface in his living room with playing cards. Rayneri has been bitten by a now-familiar bug -- the urge to commercialize tokens of war.

When the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a deck of cards that pictured Iraq's most wanted last month, it only printed 200 sets. The original cards, on thin, camouflage-backed paper, were meant to help U.S. border guards prevent top figures in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime from fleeing to Syria.

Then commercial card-makers got into the act, taking the images off CentCom's Web site and reproducing them on quality stock with rounded corners. U.S. Playing Card Co., which is manufacturing the cards for Greatusaflags.com, claims to have the only "authentic" deck, since the Pentagon used its copyrighted Hoyle jokers.

Plenty of small-time entrepreneurs leapt into the market too, such as Val Katayev, president of Poisemedia.com, which normally markets other companies' goods on the Internet. "When we see an opportunity, we get into it ourselves," he said. "We're selling them right and left. People call asking for 1,000 or 2,000 at a time." As a result, the price has dropped to less than $10 and the Iraqi most-wanted deck of cards is believed to be the single hottest item on the Internet.

Manufacturers estimate that more than 1 million decks have been sold so far. KABC talk radio in Los Angeles is giving them away to callers who donate to a fund for military families. Spammers are assaulting e-mail users with appeals to buy. Orders are even coming in from France.

"The demand for this is unprecedented," said George White, vice president for marketing at U.S. Playing Card Co., which manufactures the nation's favorite, the Bicycle card. "In the 130-year history of our company, it's unprecedented." As a result, there are now many more cards in America than in Iraq.

In each deck, Saddam Hussein is the ace of spades. His sons Qusai and Uday are the ace of clubs and ace of hearts. The decks feature the names, titles and photos (or, when no photos were available, silhouettes) of 52 Iraqi leaders wanted by the U.S., along with two jokers and a card with the Defense Intelligence Agency emblem. Although the Defense Department's most-wanted list had 200 Iraqis, only 52 made the cut.

To the regret of entrepreneurs who understand the soul of the American consumer, among those who did not make the cut was Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi information minister dubbed Baghdad Bob -- the official who boasted of battlefield prowess even as American troops took Saddam International Airport.

White thinks demand will continue as long as the most wanted are at large; so far, 18 have been confirmed captured or have surrendered.

"It keeps it in the public parlance whenever they capture another guy," White said. "It's a craze."

Next week, the cards will appear in retail stores, such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens, and there's no telling what will happen to sales then, a few short weeks before Father's Day.

The use of playing cards for military training is not new. In World War II, the military hired U.S. Playing Card Co. to manufacture three sets of cards showing the planes, ships and armored carriers of allied forces and enemy nations so troops could learn to tell them apart: spades for American equipment; hearts, British; diamonds, Japanese; clubs, German. Now, because of the popularity of the Iraqi most-wanted cards, the company is planning to reissue the World War II cards in a commemorative pack.

Back in his living room, Rayneri has 56 stacks of cards, made for him by a local printer, that he and wife Noemi are assembling. After they separate and collate the cards, the Rayneris shrink-wrap them. Their 2-year-old daughter, Paris, is getting into the act, often pointing to the ace of spades, Saddam Hussein, and pronouncing him "the captain."

Rayneri, an avid entrepreneur, has tried the Internet before, launching a Web site Freemanuals.com, that provides registered users with owner's manuals for electronic equipment. That, he said, was "a money-loser." The cards may bring him a small profit, enough, he hopes, "to pay for the big-screen TV I bought that my wife doesn't know about."

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