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CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar (AP) -- The U.S. military has issued a most-wanted list in the form of a deck of cards, and Saddam Hussein is the ace of spades in the pack of 55 top figures in his toppled regime.
The cards, with pictures of the most-wanted figures, were distributed to thousands of U.S. troops in the field to help them find the senior members of the government. The names also were being put on posters and handbills for the Iraqi public, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said.
Brooks did not identify those in the deck, except to suggest they included Saddam and his minister of information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, who boasted of battlefield successes right up to the time he disappeared Tuesday.
"There are jokers in this deck, there is no doubt about that," Brooks said.
He said the whereabouts of some of the most-wanted figures were unknown, while others might well be dead.
"The population will probably confirm that for us," he said.
"The key list has 55 individuals who may be pursued, killed or captured, and the list does not exclude leaders who may have already been killed or captured," Brooks said.
"The intent here is to help the coalition gain information from the Iraqi people so that they also know exactly who it is we seek," he added.
The U.S. forces have twice bombed sites where they believe Saddam may have been staying, and his fate is still unknown. One key figure who British and U.S. officials believe is dead is Ali Hassan al-Majid, a former Iraqi defense chief known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in the 1988 chemical weapons attacks on Iraqi Kurds.
Brooks also said that U.S. forces found and destroyed five small airplanes covered by camouflage along Highway 1 near the northern city of Tikrit, Saddam's birthplace.
The planes, he said, could have been used for escape or to distribute weapons of mass destruction. They were located after special forces north of Tikrit got caught up in a firefight with Iraqi troops, he said.
Brooks said there were increasing indications that regime leaders were trying to flee, including being smuggled out, flying out or driving out -- and that serious firefights have erupted in areas where such convoys may have been moving.
He noted that special operations forces had taken the surrender of an Iraqi colonel responsible for Iraqi checkpoints leading into Syria along highways 10 and 11 in far western Iraq, and that coalition troops now controlled the crossings.
U.S. officials have said Iraqi regime officials have fled to Syria, and Brooks hinted Friday that they were going to other countries as well, although he didn't identify which ones.
Also in western Iraq, Brooks acknowledged particularly fierce defenses around al-Qa'im along the border with Syria, and said coalition forces believed it may be a site for weapons of mass destruction.
Previously, officials have noted that most Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles fired in the 1991 Gulf War were launched from the al-Qa'im area and that it was a possible crossroads into Syria for fleeing regime officials.
"The degree of defense there and intensity causes it to be of interest to us and it, obviously, is of interest to the regime," he said.
Brooks was asked about U.S. efforts to control looting in Baghdad and other cities, and said that U.S. troops would act to control the situation but would not be used as a police force.
"At no time do we really see becoming a police force," he said, adding that at some point there would be a replacement force for the Saddam government police.
"We have to be patient with that. We are not exercising the same kind of grip over the population that the regime had," he said.
Brooks also said that U.S. special operations forces entered the Abu Ghraib prison, which can hold up to 15,000 prisoners, and found it empty, suggesting that Saddam's regime released the inmates into
the general population. No coalition prisoners were found at the site, he said.
Iraqi opposition groups say hundreds of political dissidents have been executed in recent years at Abu Ghraib, the largest prison in the Arab world.
Brooks also described as "unfortunate" and "very disappointing" the slaying Thursday in Najaf of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a prominent Shiite figure opposed to Saddam.
Al-Khoei was one of two clerics killed by a furious crowd in a Shiite Muslim shrine at a meeting meant to be a model of reconciliation.
"He was recognized as a leader. He was courageous in coming back to the country," Brooks said.
He said the military did not know who was responsible or whether it was "a grudge that was being settled, or whether it's something larger at hand."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)