Sunday, March 28, 2004

The State Department has blocked dealing out a “most-wanted” deck of cards to aid in the hunt for narco-terrorists in Colombia.

Military planners invented fugitive cards for the Iraq war. They embossed the traditional cards of aces, kings and other symbols with images of Iraq’s most notorious leaders, including Saddam Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusai.

But a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said wanted posters in the form of playing cards are a poor fit in Colombia. In fact, he said, some diplomats were “surprised” to find out last year that a defense contractor working in Colombia used its contract dollars to produce the decks.

The cards sat in storage as State debated whether to circulate them to enhance the chances of capturing or killing members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and two other antigovernment terror groups.

State officials, as well as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Braucher Wood, eventually decided that the vast reaches of Colombia where terrorists camp and redeploy was not suitable.

“The value added of playing cards to the mix was really questionable, because it’s apples and oranges, compared with Iraq,” the State official said. “The terrain. Three warring armies. These guys are out in areas where the people are barely literate.”

U.S. soldiers killed Saddam’s two sons July 22 and captured Saddam on Dec. 13 in a “spider hole” on a farm south of Tikrit.

While their images on playing cards may not have been a factor in those successes, other arrests were aided by Iraqi informants who saw the images.

Up to 400 U.S. military personnel are in Colombia training the country’s army in counter-insurgency operations. Some favor introducing the playing cards as a way to popularize the hunt for FARC terrorists who control much of the cocaine trade and indiscriminately attack and kill civilians.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was in Washington last week for talks with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but he did not raise the playing-cards debate.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, said the Rendon Group, a Washington public relations consultant, produced the cards at the request of the Colombian Defense Ministry.

He said Mr. Wood asked that the program be re-evaluated after he arrived last summer.

“What happened was, I know they were made,” the spokesman said. “But then we had a lot of success against the battlefield commanders of FARC.” The killings signaled the Colombian army is achieving its goals without playing cards, the spokesman said.

U.S. officials say the success stems from a policy shift after the September 11 attacks. President Bush won authorization from Congress for American Green Berets to expand their training from just counternarcotics to counterterror operations as well. Congress also permitted the United States to share vital intelligence, such as communications intercepts, with the local army.

The Special Forces guided the Colombians as they set up rapid-reaction units, including a commando battalion, that have penetrated deep jungle regions where FARC terrorists operate.

The units have killed more than 10 key leaders. The new offensive has resulted in a decrease in terror attacks on Colombians, and an increase in the FARC desertion rate, the State official said.

Mr. Uribe, whose popularity has soared in Colombia as he wages an aggressive war against terrorists, wants Mr. Bush to commit to a long-range “Plan Colombia” that has spent more than $2 billion in U.S. funds to counter narco-terrorists.

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