NAJAF, Iraq - The townspeople on the streets, who have taken to cheering and saluting every American vehicle that rolls past, had no idea whom they were waving to yesterday afternoon.

Gen. Tommy R. Franks, top U.S. commander in the war with Iraq, smiled and waved back, the most obvious distinction between him and the rest of the uniformed officers in the Humvees around him being the four stars on his black beret.

"To drive up and down these streets and look at these Iraqis, you can recognize that they now feel they can come out from behind the curtain of terror and rape and tyranny that they've seen in this country," Franks said. "That's heartening to a traveler like me."

Franks' trip to Najaf marked the first time the head of Central Command has visited Iraq since coalition troops began fighting for control of the nation's roadways, airfields and cities nearly three weeks ago. He traveled even as tanks were rolling into the heart of Baghdad and onto the lavish grounds of several of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's palaces, but he declined to take a reporter's suggestion that he deliver a message directly to the Iraqi president.

"I think people ought not [to] rattle sabers," the general replied briskly.

Franks then went on to warn Americans that despite the speed with which troops have arrived in the Iraqi capital, the war effort could still have a long way to go. "The hardest part of this may, in fact, be in front of us, not behind us," he said. "And so I think we all continue doing this until not only the war is won, but the peace is won."

Under tight security in a Chinook helicopter, Franks had crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq just before 10 a.m., stopping in the southern Iraqi city of Az-Zubayr to visit soldiers from the British 1st Armored Division. He then flew north to Numaniyah, where he met with the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

His final stop was Najaf, a holy Shiite city of more than 400,000 people in central Iraq where battles had raged for nearly a week before the 327th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division assumed control.

On the southern edge of Najaf, Franks toured an Iraqi infantry training school - similar to a U.S. military boot camp - that U.S. troops stormed and occupied early last week. There he saw stockpiles of weapons and ammunition that have been discovered throughout Najaf as soldiers go from building to building to root out the last traces of militia groups loyal to Hussein.

A nervous, freshly shaved captain explained to Franks that the bulk of the weapons had been found inside schools. Of nearly 125 schools searched, 70 percent had weapons caches, including one facility that was mass-producing land mines, he said.

"All this from schools?" the general asked the young officer, shaking his head and pursing his lips.

Such a high-level visit to Najaf by a U.S. military officer carries great significance. Despite the overwhelmingly positive response to troops by average people, the city's top leaders and Muslim clerics remain deeply skeptical of the intentions of the U.S. government. They have vivid memories of 1991, when the United States encouraged the majority Shiite city to revolt against Hussein's Sunni government after the Persian Gulf war but then failed to support the revolution or stop the brutal crackdown by the Iraqi military that followed.

The U.S. military is doing what it can to ease Najaf into the rebuilding phase, even as the war continues to the north.

Members of the U.S. special forces were planning to meet today with top civic leaders of Najaf. "They're going to decide who's the mayor, who's in charge of the water plant, who will distribute the food," said Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the 101st Airborne's 1st Brigade.

Each day brings Najaf closer to normality. Electricity has been restored to some parts of town.

Engineers from the Army's Civil Affairs division have been working to fix the water plant, which was damaged by bombs. People are again taking taxis, for a while the most feared vehicle on the road after one was used in a suicide bombing that killed three U.S. soldiers.

Before returning to Central Command headquarters in Qatar yesterday afternoon, Franks awarded Bronze Stars for valor to two soldiers who had fought in the battle for Najaf. Sgt. James Ward led the team that stormed the military compound on the south side of the city, and Sgt. Lucas Goddard spearheaded the assault on the airfield, taking direct enemy fire.

As he thanked them for their service, Franks quoted Gen. George Patton: "I'm a single soldier. I do not pick where I go, but I win where I go."