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The leathery general who may rule Baghdad

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Tommy Ray Franks doesn't have that West Point spit and polish. He grew up in Midland, Texas - same hometown as you-know-who - hunting quail and kicking up dust in an old black Chevelle.

He dropped out of school and joined the Army in 1967 - "to grow up" (his words). That he did, rising from private to four-star general.

Today, he's a 6 ft. 3 in. piece of rawhide who can both cuss out soldiers and serenade them with a little Garth Brooks. He's also poised to lead 300,000 US troops in an invasion of Iraq.

You're not supposed to call him "commander in chief" of the US Central Command. That title's been abolished as aggrandizing, per the order of Donald Rumsfeld.

But tell that to the ranks. He may be the kind of general who got them to include that "Chief," in the first place.

"Truthfully, I would follow him anywhere," says an Army noncommissioned officer who has served under him.

While any new war with Iraq might be the most challenging US military engagement of his generation, General Franks has not exactly been sitting around Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

His job involves overseeing US military involvement in the hottest region in the world - a realm that includes 25 countries from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia. He ran the lightning-speed war in Afghanistan, heads up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and now - if the president so decides - will push the button marked "go" for an Iraq conflict.

His preparation for this moment was admittedly unorthodox, by Army standards. After serving in the enlisted ranks in Vietnam (and earning three Purple Hearts), he returned to college, then graduated into the officer corps, and rotated through Germany, Korea, and Desert Storm, among other assignments, on his way to four stars.

Everywhere, he picked up knowledge that's prepared him for his current post, Franks said recently at a Pentagon press conference. "I think we go day by day, in learning from past experience, in thinking about the next experience, in applying our lessons by way of instruction, by way of example, to the young people who will be called on to do the work."

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