DOHA, Qatar — Gen. Tommy Franks, who orchestrated the U.S.-led assault that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, made his first visit to Baghdad on Wednesday to congratulate his troops and consult with his commanders.
Franks smoked a cigar in one of Hussein's opulent former palaces -- outfitted with gold bathroom fixtures, a crystal-and-gold chandelier and marble floors -- and declared that essential services would be restored for Iraqi citizens in coming days.
In another sign of a possible easing of tensions in the region, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he expected to travel to Damascus, the Syrian capital, soon for talks with President Bashar Assad. Powell's comments came as the Syrian government took action to close its border with Iraq and turn away at least some Iraqi officials trying to seek refuge in Syria.
A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that Syria had turned back Abul Abbas, the Palestinian who masterminded the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking. Allied troops took Abbas into custody late Monday near Baghdad. And the Syrians have agreed to turn over a senior member of Hussein's government who tried to enter the country, the official said, although he refused to name the Iraqi.
A sense of jeopardy appeared to lift elsewhere Wednesday, as the Bush administration lowered the national alert status in the United States from orange to yellow, and one prominent Iraqi exile returned to a more secure Baghdad. But in Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, residents complained of violence by Kurds who had entered the city from the north.
Franks' trip to Baghdad was billed as a morale booster for the troops and a chance to confer firsthand with his military leaders.Franks flew from his base in Qatar to Kuwait, where he boarded a C-130 cargo plane for the trip to Baghdad's international airport, which still shows damage from the U.S. assault. The largest crater in its runway is 60 feet across and 15 deep.
Leaving the plane, Franks raised a clenched fist in greeting to troops waiting at the airport and then took a motorcade into Baghdad.
In the Iraqi capital, the commanders toured the palace and Franks greeted many of the U.S. troops on duty there, hugging some of them and shaking many hands.
He talked to enlisted troops, officers and military police alike: "Thank you," he said. "Thank you for coming."
Franks and his commanders acknowledged the postwar problems apparent throughout the country -- including persistent violence and looting and a desperate shortage of electricity, water and medical care in the heavily bombed capital -- but they celebrated the Iraqi leader's departure from power.
"One thing for sure: The regime of Saddam Hussein is no longer in charge of Iraq," Franks said.
While Franks was visiting the troops, Pentagon officials tallied the war's cost at $20 billion so far and growing at a rate of $3.5 billion to $4 billion a month.
That doesn't include the several billion dollars it will cost to bring combat troops back home, Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim said. He offered no estimate on the cost of stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq.
The Pentagon also said the interim U.S. military administration would start giving Iraqi civil servants a $20-a-head, one-time emergency payment within days. The U.S. military said it hoped to get Iraqi oil fields pumping at two-thirds of their prewar levels within eight weeks.
Franks' visit to Baghdad came as prominent Iraqi exiles were beginning to arrive in the capital. Among those vying for a role in the new government is Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and a favorite of the Pentagon, who on Wednesday became the first significant Iraqi exile to travel to Baghdad since Hussein's government was overthrown.
Abdelaziz Hakim, a top Iraqi Shiite opposition leader and deputy head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, arrived in the eastern Iraqi city of Al Kut, ending 23 years in exile in Iran, Hakim's son said. He was apparently the first Iranian-backed Shiite leader to return to Iraq.
As the U.S. continued to play a role in Iraq, it also made it clear that it wants to have a say in the broader region.
On Syria, Powell said "lots of messages" had been relayed between Washington and Damascus in recent days through U.S. envoys, as well as through Britain, France and Spain, to try to dampen escalating tensions.
"I would expect to travel to Syria again to have very candid and straightforward discussions with my foreign minister colleague [Farouk Shareh] and with President Bashar Assad," Powell said in an interview with Associated Press.
He did not say when he might make the trip. State Department sources said Powell had been considering a swing through the Middle East after the war, possibly later this month or in early May.