Gen. Tommy Franks lit a cigar and strolled through the glittering splendor of one of Saddam Hussein's bombed-out palaces, sitting in the gilded chairs and looking with obvious disgust at the gold toilet-paper dispenser and the gold-handled toilet bowl brush.

"It's the oil-for-palace program," he said in a mocking reference to Iraq's alleged misuse of a U.N. oil-for-food program that was supposed to turn oil revenue into humanitarian aid.

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq paid his first visit to Baghdad on Wednesday in a tour that underscored the growing sense of control and security felt by American troops in the country. The trip was billed as a meeting with his top commanders and a morale-booster for troops.

Dressed in desert fatigues and packing a 9mm Beretta under his belt, Franks briefed President Bush on the war via videoconference from inside Saddam's Abu Ghurayb North Palace, just outside the Iraqi capital.

"This gives me a chance to meet these people who've been doing such a great job down here," the four-star general said at Baghdad's international airport. It was his second time in Iraq since the war began.

On Thursday, Franks was in Kuwait, visiting the Humanitarian Operations Center.

The former presidential palace, a brownstone complex complete with manmade lake, now serves as the command center for U.S. ground forces.

Entering the compound, Franks greeted soldiers with hugs and slaps, sometimes kissing cheeks.

He toured rooms with arabesque ceilings, crystal chandeliers, broad marble floors, plush green couches and gold bathroom fixtures.

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. David 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.

The commanders helped themselves to battlefield rations -- meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs.

"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 flew via Kuwait to the Iraqi capital's airport -- once called 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.

The visit went without incident. Security was tight amid sporadic firefights across the country and a surge in anti-American sentiment.

Upon descending into Baghdad, the general pulled out the sidearm he keeps tucked into the waist of his pants and checked the magazine and laser sight.

During 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.

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.