ARLINGTON, Va. — The Pentagon’s “55 most wanted” playing cards are turning into the hottest collector’s item since Beanie Babies, but with an ugly twist: unscrupulous sellers are offering “real” cards that were never produced by the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials say, those decks that have been printed — fewer than 200, total — are still sitting at U.S. Central Command headquarters, waiting for distribution to selected troops in Iraq.

The cards made their debut during a CENTCOM briefing from Doha, Qatar, on April 11, when Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks displayed a deck emblazoned with the faces of 55 key Iraqi regime leaders that U.S. troops are supposed to pursue, kill or capture.

Each deck has two Jokers, one showing Iraqi military ranks and the other Arab tribal titles. Saddam Hussein is depicted on the ace of spades.

From the moment Brooks waved the cards, Pentagon and CENTCOM officials have been besieged with requests for the decks.

“Everyone wants them,” a weary Pentagon official said. They say, ‘Not for me, you understand — for my mother,’ or ‘my friend,’ or ‘my cat’ or whatever. But we’ve never had a set here.”

The troops don’t have the cards yet, either, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Megan Fox.

“The cards have been sent to CENTCOM, but they have not been distributed yet,” Fox said Tuesday, after speaking to an official in Qatar.

Meanwhile, there are fewer than 200 actual decks to be handed out, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Brooks, a spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“CENTCOM asked for a couple hundred [decks], and we made them in our own print shop and sent an initial shipment out before the war,” Brooks said in a Tuesday telephone interview.

But Central Command never asked for more cards beyond the original 200 sets, Brooks said.

“If they had wanted more, we were prepared to have a [commercial] contractor do it for us, but they didn’t ask,” Brooks said.

What is readily available is a computer “PDF” file that allows anyone with Internet access to download the playing card templates for free.

Pentagon officials quickly decided to make the PDF files available after getting swamped with requests for the cards, Brooks said.

“With such a large interest, it was the only thing I could do,” Brooks said. “The money to make the cards comes out of operational funds, and that means taxpayer dollars. There was no way we were going to print up a bunch of giveaways” just to satisfy collectors, Brooks said.

The “Iraq 55” cards were developed by DIA specialists who knew about the old American tradition of using playing cards to help troops learn more about the enemy.

Such playing cards have been used as far back as the Civil War, Brooks said, again in World War II — Army Air Corps decks printed with the silhouettes of German and Japanese fighter aircraft fetch hundreds of dollars today — and in the Korean War.

Troops often play cards to pass the time, and seeing the names, faces and titles of the wanted Iraqis during their games will help soldiers and Marines in case they run into the wanted individuals in the field, Brooks said.

The cards, Brooks said, “are nothing fancy. The corners aren’t rounded, and the paper stock is the best we had at the time, but these were never meant to be a collector or novelty item. It’s just a handy guide to the guys in the field,” Brooks said.

“They’re just a tool.”

But in true American fashion, entrepreneurs see something else in the cards: dollar signs.

Less than a week since the public learned about the playing cards, sellers have burst out of the woodwork, ready and eager to offer “the real thing” to gullible buyers.

By Tuesday, there were more than 243 Iraq card decks and card-related items on sale on the online auction site eBay.

Some of the sellers clearly state that they have used government-supplied PDF files to manufacture “collector’s items.”

Many others, however, are presenting dubious claims, including sellers who are selling electronic links to the PDF site — something any computer user with access to a search engine could quickly locate.

One set of cards offered by a London seller calling himself “nievescurran” had 25 bidders by midafternoon Tuesday, with the price of the deck up to more than $360 — and eight days still to go on the sale.

The seller crows in a paragraph lifted verbatim from the listing: “Yes I all ready have them hot of the press and fresh out of the Pentagon hands,” the seller crows. Another eBay seller, “kvndoom,” from Newport News, Va., claims to have cards “printed by the same company that supplies these cards to the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait!”

That’s not possible, Brooks said, because DIA gave the cards to CENTCOM, not the embassy, and has never had the cards printed by a commercial contractor.

Bracing for a mass order of the cards from CENTCOM, DIA did identify a possible contractor, Hoyle, a subsidiary of American Playing Card Co. But that contract was never signed, Brooks said.

A woman who answered the telephone for American Playing Cards in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Tuesday confirmed that the company is not making the Iraq playing cards.

Calling the cards that are for sale on eBay fakes would be splitting legal hairs, because the PDF files are authentic.

“I am not a lawyer,” Brooks said.

But the eBay cards are not — can’t be — the 200 DIA cards that exist, Brooks said.

“Everything that’s on eBay aren’t cards we printed up,” Brooks said. “Those are electronic files that people downloaded for free.”

In a telephone interview from eBay’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters Tuesday, eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said he was unaware of the limited supply of “most wanted” cards, and the fact they have yet to be distributed.

“We do seem to get into a questionable area here,” Pursglove said, adding that he planned to refer the Iraqi card issue to eBay’s special team of customer service agents.

If eBay sellers are violating the law by offering government property for sale, or eBay selling rules, which do not allow sellers to offer items not in their physical possession (such as PDF files in the public domain), “eBay would remove” the listings, Pursglove said.

Brooks, meanwhile, said he has no opinion about the people who are making a buck off the PDF files.

“It’s kind of an interesting phenomenon,” he said.

But he did have one piece of advice: “Caveat Emptor.” Let the buyer beware.

Click here to download free PDF files of the “55 Most Wanted” playing cards.

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