U.S. Gen. Franks makes first visit to Baghdad, meets top commanders
CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar– Dressed in desert fatigues and packing a 9-mm Beretta under his belt, U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks made his first trip to Baghdad on Wednesday where he strolled through the gold-trimmed splendor of a bombed-out palace once belonging to President Saddam Hussein.
The short visit by the four-star general who directed the invasion of Iraq underscored the growing sense of control and security felt by U.S.-led forces in the country. The trip was billed as a meeting with his top commanders and a morale booster for troops.
“This gives me a chance to meet these people who’ve been doing such a great job down here,” Franks said at Baghdad’s international airport before boarding a motorcade to head for Saddam’s Abu Ghurayb North Palace, just outside the capital. It was his second time in Iraq since the war began.
The former presidential residence, an ostentatious brownstone structure complex complete with man-made lake, now serves as the command center for U.S. ground forces, U.S. Central Command said.
Entering the compound, Franks greeted soldiers with hugs and slaps, sometimes kissing cheeks.
Once inside, he toured palatial rooms outfitted with pastel-painted arabesque ceilings, crystal chandeliers, expansive marble floors, plush green couches and gold-leafed fixtures. The bathroom alone include a gold toilet-paper dispenser and toilet-bowl brush with a gold handle.
“It’s the oil-for-palace program,” Franks said, chiding Iraq’s alleged misuse of a U.N. sponsored oil-for-food program that was supposed to turn oil revenue into humanitarian aid.
Franks also toured a palace wing that had been hit by a Tomahawk cruise missile and still smelled of fire. Standing atop a pile of rubble, he surveyed the crater and tangle of broken metal rods and wires.
Among the commanders Franks met were Lt. Gen. John McKiernan, commander of the U.S.-led ground forces, Vice Admiral Timothy Keating, Brig. Gen. Gary Harrell, head of special operations for Central Command, Gen. Earl Hailston of Marine Central Command and Lt. Gen. Buzz Moseley, commander of U.S. air forces, as well as intelligence officers, according to a pool report.
The commanders helped themselves to battlefield rations — so called meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs — before sitting down to a videoconference with President Bush.
“I very simply provide the president and the national security council a statement of where we are in the operation,” Franks said of the conference. “I provide my personal assessment as it’s formed from the views of the commanders. Then I describe for the president my vision of what I think we’ll see in the next week to 10 days.”
He did not elaborate on his forecast for Iraq.
Franks left Central Command headquarters outside Doha, Qatar in the early morning and flew via Kuwait to the airport — once Saddam International but now rechristened Baghdad International by the Americans. The main runway was still pocked with 60-foot wide craters from U.S. aerial attacks. Baghdad’s other airport was not fit to land planes.
The visit went without incident. Security was tight amid sporadic fire fights across the country and an upsurge in anti-American sentiment.
Upon descending into Baghdad, the general pulled out the sidearm he keeps tucked into the waste of his pants and checked the magazine and laser sight.
And for the 10-minute drive from the airport to the palace, his motorcade was flanked by Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees bristling with machine guns and grenade launches. Apache helicopters flew cover overhead.
Before leaving, Franks posed for photos in front of Saddam’s palatial gardens. His plane left Baghdad airport in the early evening for Kuwait.
Franks made a one day sweep of southern Iraq earlier this month. He took in several towns, including Basra and the Shiite holy city of Najaf where a suicide bomber killed four U.S. soldiers last month, according to a senior U.S. Central Command officer.