As Sayliya Camp (Qatar), April 8 (Reuters): Pistol-packing US Gen. Tommy Franks paid a quick visit to Iraq yesterday to salute his troops and demonstrate their firm grip on much of the country.
It was his first trip to Iraq since the US-led forces he commands invaded nearly three weeks ago. He did not visit Baghdad, part of which US troops already hold, getting only as close as Najaf, 145 km south of the capital.
With a 0.9 mm Beretta pistol tucked into his back belt, Franks stopped in southern Iraq to visit British commanders in charge of the battle for Basra, now nearly at an end, then flew to Najaf to see US forces during his sevenhour trip. He was cheered not only by good news from the battlefield, but by a friendly reception from civilians in Najaf, scene of fierce fighting just a few days ago.
Children and adults in the streets waved and shouted support as his convoy passed in the type of show of goodwill for the invaders that US and British leaders based their war plan on.
“What I was able to see in Najaf was very powerful, not just the military piece, but on the street, there’s some insight there that permitted me to form some opinions about how long it (the war) might last,” he said.
“It was encouraging,” said the Texan general, who wore a desert camouflage uniform and black beret. He and his entourage carried their chemical weapons suits, but did not put them on, even in areas where troops wore them.
Franks shook hands and traded jokes with his troops, who bragged that they had reduced the Iraqi Baghdad division to “zero per cent capability” and told him they had found weapons caches in more than 110 schools in Najaf.
Destroying buildings of the ruling Baath party and tearing down statues and portraits of President Saddam Hussein helped win the Iraqis’ confidence, they said.
Not all the news was good. Battlefield commanders told Franks that towns such as Hilla, where the population is predominantly Sunni, were still posing problems.
“Hilla is a black hole,” said Major General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne troops. “It’s a Sunni town. We had a hell of a fight on the road into there the other day.”
Saddam is a Sunni, but the majority of Iraqis — especially in southern towns like Najaf — are from the Shia sect.