LONDON -- The commander of the U.S. military forces massing on the borders of Iraq said Monday his job is to disarm the country, not necessarily to capture or kill Saddam Hussein.
"It's crystal clear to me that my mission has to do with disarmament of the regime," said Gen. Tommy Franks in an interview with The Associated Press.
As head of U.S. Central Command, Franks is the military officer who would run a war against Iraq. The four-star Army general commented en route to England from his headquarters at Tampa, Fla.
He did not suggest that Saddam would escape a final accounting but indicated the war plan is focused more broadly.
"If there's a policy decision that says that the man who represents this regime is the problem, then he will become a part of the objective. If the intent is to get disarmament inside Iraq, then we can all ask ourselves the question, well, what does that mean about Saddam Hussein."
He spoke of eliminating Iraq's pillars of power - military, economic and internal security - to ensure the destruction of any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Although he said he was not focused on Saddam as a personal target, Franks had harsh words for the Iraqi president.
"We have a firm conviction that Saddam Hussein rapes, murders and abuses his own people, that he threatens the Western world and a great many nations in the international community - and we're one of them - that he has the capability to bring his threats to reality, and it seems to us this should not stand."
Franks flew to London to meet Tuesday with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff. Afterward he planned to fly to Qatar, in the central Persian Gulf, to meet with commanders awaiting a decision by President Bush on whether to use force to disarm Iraq.
Dressed casually and wearing a white baseball-style Tampa Bay Buccaneers hat, Franks spoke in an hour-long interview over the Atlantic aboard a new Air Force C-40B jet, a modified Boeing 73-700 airliner equipped with some of the most sophisticated communications in the military.
The plane is essentially an airborne command post, giving Franks not only secure telephone lines to his headquarters, his Gulf commanders and the Pentagon, but also a large video screen that depicts every ship, warplane and land force throughout the Gulf region - updated almost continuously. The screen also pinpoints the location of every active Iraqi radar throughout the country.
More than 180,000 U.S. land, sea and air personnel are now arrayed against Iraq, and the number is growing daily. Yet to arrive are the Army's 4th Infantry Division - likely to position itself in southern Turkey if Ankara gives the go-ahead as expected this week - and the 101st Airborne Division.
Franks would not discuss details of the buildup.
"What everyone wants to say is, 'Everything that's going to be involved in this fight - it's there now.' And then others will say, 'Everything that's needed for this fight won't be there till April or May.' And the fact of the matter is, I don't think it's in my interest to disabuse either side."
It was clear from Franks' comments that he is preserving as much of the element of surprise as possible. He would not, for example, say whether he would run the war from his newly installed command post at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar or elsewhere.
Franks planned to visit the camp this week to meet with the land, sea and air commanders who report to him, but he insisted this was not an indication war was imminent.
"A lot of people will be speculating and say, OK, this is a last-minute exercise to check out the war plan and all of that. That is not the case," Franks said. He said it was simply part of his normal "battle rhythm" - reviewing preparations each day with all key people involved.
Franks, a veteran of the Vietnam and 1991 Gulf wars, is in the rare position of commanding U.S. forces in one combat zone - Afghanistan - overseeing an anti-terror operation in another region - the Horn of Africa - and positioning troops for possible war in another corner of his 25-nation domain - Iraq.
He addressed a wide range of topics, including a personal matter: the Pentagon investigation into allegations that he allowed his wife to sit in on classified briefings and failed to fully reimburse the government for her travel.
"I'm not satisfied that there is any malfeasance with any of this, and so I really don't have anything to say until it's finished," he said.
Asked whether it has distracted him at this critical moment, he said, "The ability of a guy in my position to focus on his work is very, very important to getting the job done. This ongoing investigation has had no impact on my focus at all because I'm comfortable with the way I do my business and I'm comfortable that at the end of the day everyone will understand why I am comfortable."