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The leathery general who may rule Baghdad

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Leslie Hinds was the principal of Robert E. Lee High School where Franks attended. Mr. Hinds says Franks was an average student, the kind that blends in, never attracting attention.

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But he, too, says Franks - who wears cowboy boots when out of uniform and loves enchiladas - has never forgotten where he's from. Hinds watched one of the first televised press conferences on Afghanistan that featured Franks. Afterward, he called his congressman for an address and wrote to compliment Franks. "Can you believe as busy as that man was, I had a letter back written in his own hand?" asks the astonished Hinds. "He does things like that. I'm so impressed that he is the man going to be leading us in Iraq. He has such an understanding of people, and he's so stable."

Franks is deeply rooted in family. He's been married for 33 years to his wife, Cathy, who often accompanies him in the field. In fact, Franks was recently investigated - but cleared with a slight reprimand yesterday - for allowing his wife to sit in on classified briefings.

A vast task

Franks's stability and shepherding of his troops - which considers extended family - is what comes up over and over with those who talk about him.

Today, he's the right man in the right place for the United States, many of his peers say. If war with Iraq breaks out, Franks will basically hold the future of the Middle East in his hands. It could either stabilize, as the president envisions, or turn into a blazing inferno, as critics charge.

In MacArthur's footsteps

If the US prevails in Iraq, as Franks so solidly believes, he will have an even larger task on his hands - making way for democracy - an effort not undertaken by the US since General MacArthur restructured Japan after World War II.

Franks assumed leadership of the US Central Command in July 2000, just three months before terrorists blew a hole in the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen. That attack killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others.

The Congressional hearings that followed, where Franks appeared to answer for the military, was his first real experience with the limelight. It's clear he doesn't like that part of it; he rarely grants interviews, and supplies short, staccato, unrevealing answers at press conferences.

He often barks, when pushed on this, "I'm no Gen. [Norman] Schwarzkopf," the man who dazzled Americans during Desert Storm with his televised briefings and lessons on the art of warfare.

But although he does not fit the dapper, West Point-mold, he's credited with pulling off an amazing feat in Afghanistan.

After Al Qaeda terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon on 9/11, Franks was asked by the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to come up with a new war plan for Afghanistan.

It was clear that the one on the books, which called for sending in up to 50,000 troops in the first few months and predicted punishing casualties, wouldn't work.

Franks reportedly put together a new plan in 1 1/2 weeks, which called for teams of CIA paramilitary operatives and special forces commandos leading the charge - often on horseback - with incomparable air support.

"Afghanistan was the riskiest, most complex operation we've pulled off in 20 years," says General McCaffrey. "It was 600 miles from the sea, where they had only two carriers, a handful of F-16s. The max we had on the ground there was only 300 real special forces guys until we put in a Marine battalion."

In the end, it took only 9 weeks to rout the Taliban and scatter Al Qaeda. Still, it suffered failures. Osama bin Laden got away at Tora Bora in December 2001, when special forces and CIA operatives relied on the warlords to block his escape routes. Franks was roundly criticized for this, as well as for his leading his troops from his command post at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., rather than on the scene.

That's one thing that will change with Iraq. A command and control post has been set up in Qatar. Franks left this week to take control of the operation and is expected to remain there until Iraq is resolved.