General John Abizaid likes to travel on the edge. He is riding in a Black Hawk helicopter as it tears across the skies of central Iraq, skimming treetops and flushing startled sheep out onto the grassy pastures beneath. As always, the general's entourage of three choppers is shadowed by Apache helicopter gunships, hunting for the hunters--the insurgents who may lurk below and would like nothing better than to shoot down another symbol of the American occupation. This one would be a particular prize: as the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, Abizaid is the Pentagon's man in the Middle East, responsible for everything from the hunt for Osama bin Laden to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan to making sure al-Qaeda is not able to regroup anywhere else in the poor, lawless areas that make up much of the troubled turf he oversees.
But for Abizaid, as for his superiors in Washington, the effort to stabilize Iraq is job No. 1. The general has spent much of the past year trying to prevent the occupation from becoming an unwinnable quagmire--and that was before the prison-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib erupted in all its sordid horror. Now Abizaid and his men are racing against the clock, attempting to turn back the insurgency, soothe Iraqi outrage at the U.S. and bring the country enough security so that Iraqis can begin to take power after June 30, when a U.N.-anointed caretaker government steps in. Abizaid, accompanied by TIME on a mission to Iraq this month, flies low and fast. When he arrives at a U.S. base in Tikrit, he is determined to exhort the troops to keep the faith, at a time when so many Americans are losing theirs. Back home, Americans "see pictures of burning humvees, they see pictures of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and they see all the negative things that happen," he says, addressing 100 soldiers in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. "But the positive things that happen day after day--the only people who really know about that are you."
This may seem like an awkward time for Abizaid and the forces he commands to accentuate the positive. By many measures, the U.S. enterprise in Iraq remains a chaotic, costly slog. The prison scandal has plainly made the goal of winning Iraqi hearts and minds remote. Last week's brutal videotaped decapitation of American Nicholas Berg, 26, showed again just how dangerous Iraq remains. Even Donald Rumsfeld, the embattled Defense Secretary, acknowledged at least the possibility that the grand American design for Iraq--a stable democracy at the heart of the autocratic Arab world--might end in failure. "Is it possible it won't work?" he asked rhetorically during testimony before the Senate last week. "Yes."