Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded U.S. and British forces in the war against Iraq, paid a brief conqueror's visit to Baghdad today, greeting U.S. soldiers with hugs and horseplay and smoking a victory cigar with his top officers in one of former president Saddam Hussein's commandeered palaces.
"I wanted to get our commanders together in Baghdad because that's been of course the center of gravity for this regime while it stood," Franks declared. "And as we all recognize, it stands no longer."
In acknowledgment of that, when Franks left Baghdad tonight -- 28 days after he gave the order that launched the war -- his ultimate destination was not back to his wartime headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Instead, he was bound for Kuwait and then Tampa, Fla., the Central Command's permanent home.
But Franks stopped short of a formal declaration that the war is over. Although President Bush said last week that the war would be finished when Franks said it was, Franks put the onus back on his commander in chief. "Actually, the president of the United States will determine when the war is over," Franks said, shortly before speaking with Bush in a video teleconference from the palace. "What I'll do is describe to him where I think we are in this particular phase."
What U.S. officials call "decisive combat" is over, but Franks noted that U.S. soldiers and Special Operations forces continue to pursue pockets of non-Iraqi Arab fighters, who have proved to be more determined than Hussein's vaunted Republican Guards. In addition, U.S. forces have a challenging assignment in restoring order here and across the country after a burst of looting that accompanied the government's collapse a week ago.
In the northern city of Mosul, for instance, U.S. troops killed at least seven Iraqi civilians Tuesday when a demonstration against their presence turned violent, military officials at Central Command said. Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, briefing reporters, said Marines and Special Operations forces opened fire on the crowd when the demonstrators began shooting at a compound occupied by the troops.
U.S. Special Forces backed by Marines today raided the Baghdad home of Rahib Taha, called "Dr. Germ" by U.N. weapons inspectors because she headed a secret Iraqi program believed to involve biological weapons. Troops seized boxes of documents and escorted three men from the house with their hands up. But U.S. officials released no information about the whereabouts of Taha, a British-trained microbiologist.
U.S. officials in Kuwait, meanwhile, revealed plans to make swift payments of $20 apiece to Iraqi civil servants in an effort to inject money into the war-stalled economy. One effect, they acknowledged, would be to put U.S. currency into circulation in partial replacement of the Iraqi dinar notes that carry Hussein's image.
Franks, whose Central Command directs all U.S. forces in the Middle East, showed little emotion as he strode down the ramp of a C-130 Hercules transport plane in a cool breeze at Saddam International Airport. He offered none of the grand gestures of the conquering warrior. But when he spied Army Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of coalition ground forces, Franks gave a smart salute. And then he clasped his fellow Army general in a bear hug.
Franks resumed marching toward a waiting motorcade of M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and armored Humvees with mounted machine guns and grenade launchers. When he spotted soldiers lined up along the side, craning for a view of their general, he clenched his fist and raised it high.
Barely breaking stride for a lone television camera, Franks passed up the opportunity to declaim about liberation or world peace. Instead, in his Texas drawl, he said, "This visit gives me a chance to meet these people who've been doing such a great job down here."
Franks never saw the heart of the Iraqi capital, where soldiers and Marines are still engaging in sporadic fights. Instead he spent much of his six-hour stay under chandeliers of crystal and gold at the Abu Gharayb Palace, one of Hussein's many abodes. There, on plush green love seats and gold-trimmed couches, Franks convened a meeting of his senior commanders, who had arrived from their posts in Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It was the first time he had seen them together since the outbreak of fighting.
Franks's visit was the first he has ever made to Baghdad -- "I am a lifelong learner," he quipped -- and only the second to Iraq. His daytime flight was rare for the C-130, whose crew prefers the safety of darkness. A U.S. F-15 flew overhead as extra security.
Security was also intensive on the ground. More than a dozen armored vehicles wound past the airport's battered bunkers and the 15-foot-deep bomb crater in the runway that had forced Franks's plane to set down on the taxiway, past vineyards at the entrance to the presidential estate and M1 Abrams tanks parked among the palm trees lining the grounds' main avenue. Several AH-64 Apache attack helicopters buzzed overhead.
An armored battalion was assigned to secure the palace, a mammoth brown stone structure in the middle of a man-made lake recently converted to McKiernan's command headquarters and billet for his soldiers. Freshly washed pants, socks and other laundry hung outside the windows. The glass had been blown out weeks ago by a cruise missile strike.
Franks, the sleeves of his desert camouflage uniform rolled up above the biceps, a 9mm Beretta tucked into his waist at the small of his back, walked briskly into the darkened halls, across marble floors coated with dirt. He took less notice of the vast archway, the columns engraved with Hussein's initials and the gold-trimmed doors than of the young MPs who stood at attention.
"Thank you," he said to one youthful soldier.
"Thank you for coming," he said to another.
"Hello, brother," he greeted an officer. "How are you doing? You doing okay?"
He reached out, grabbing one soldier after another and tugging them close. He rubbed their crew cuts and slapped their arms. Several old friends were greeted with the smack of a kiss.
Rather than linger in the main meeting room, Franks headed for the palace's abandoned kitchen to look around. His combat boots crunched on the broken china and glass. Spotting a soldier through the window, the general cried out, "Hey! Hey!" He let out a piercing whistle then yelled again, "Come here!"
The soldier approached, and Franks shoved his arm past the bars of the window, through the concertina wire, to shake his hand.
Only then did the general return to the spacious hall to speak with his senior commanders, including McKiernan, Air Force Lt. Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, Navy Vice Admiral Timothy J. Keating, Marine Lt. Gen. Earl B. Hailston and Army Brig. Gen. Gary L. Harrell, commander of special operations for U.S. Central Command. They clustered on the love seats and couches, snacking on MREs. Before them hung a nine-foot map of Iraq, illuminated by a fluorescent lamp, one of a few lights installed by the military in the otherwise darkened building.
One by one, the commanders briefed Franks on their operations, their conversation interrupted by the intermittent roar of Apache helicopters overhead. When the generals were done, they broke open the cigars that McKiernan had brought and lit up. Franks puffed away, even as he took his daily telephone call from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"I asked that all the commanders who have been responsible for this operation meet here in Baghdad today," Franks told a few reporters. "Part of it actually is an emotional event because they're people who have done the bone-crushing hard work, along, obviously, with all of their subordinates."
Back in the relative privacy of the C-130, Franks grabbed a bottle of drinking water and splattered several of the troops sitting across from him. Turning to his left, he pretended to tie up his security chief, Brig. Gen. Jim Schwitters, with a spare seat belt. Then turning to his right, he stole a watch from the wrist of his aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Chris Goedeke.
The general pulled a can of Skoal chewing tobacco from his rear pocket, put a pinch into his mouth and, finally, settled back for the flight out of the war zone. But before he did, he reached into his breast pocket, producing a leftover cigar. He tossed it across the belly of the plane to one of the soldiers in his security detail.
Unable to make himself heard over the roar of the plane, Franks flashed a thumbs up.