By Philip Klein
NEW YORK (Reuters) - While pundits around the globe speculated on the fate of Saddam Hussein, others were putting money on it.
Offering wagers on the outcome of the war in Iraq has been scorned as distasteful by major bookmakers from London to Las Vegas, but several Web sites are giving gamblers the opportunity to put money on whether Saddam will survive.
On the Web site Tradesports.com, people can buy contracts for $10 on future events, such as the Academy Awards, and trade them.
On Friday, as rumors swirled through financial markets that Saddam had been killed, futures reflecting the chance that Saddam would not be leader of Iraq by the end of March rose to 79 percent, from 65 percent earlier in the day, and from about 20 percent earlier this month, according to Tradesports.com.
"The majority of our people come from the financial and trading community and they use the very same skills they use in their day jobs," Tradesports.com Chief Executive John Delaney said. Gamblers have traded over $1 million in contracts on Saddam's fate since the proposition was posted in September, he said.
This makes it the second most-traded item, after U.S. college basketball's championship tournament, traditionally one of the most popular bets of the year. The site also offers contracts on politics, economic news and financial market performance.
Delaney said he does not believe it is distasteful to offer a wager on Hussein's fate, but said he would not post contracts on such things as the number of war casualties.
"We've gotten requests that we wouldn't consider listing," he said, while declining to be more specific.
Other gaming companies said they won't touch Iraq.
"This is far too serious and involves the loss of lives and, therefore, shouldn't be seen as a trivial or sporting event," said Alan Feldman, a spokesman for MGM Mirage, the second-largest casino operator in the United States.
Warren Lush, a spokesman for London-based Ladbrokes Ltd said, "We constantly get inquiries, I have to admit, but it's something we won't do and never have done."
Eddie King, a spokesman for Costa Rica-based Betonsports.com said they have taken about $300,000 in bets relating to Iraq, most for $5 or $10 and the highest for $500. That compares with the $200 million the Web site expects to take in from this month's college basketball tournament.
Visitors to the site could place bets on a variety of propositions, such as whether Saddam would be dead or exiled by the end of June and when ground troops would move into Iraq.
"These are questions we ask each other at breakfast, lunch and dinner, on the street or hanging out at the office, now people have the option to bet on it," King said, adding that the bets were only offered at the request of customers.