June 15, 2006

The Hartford Courant  

CAMP BAHARIA, Iraq -- In this unlikely place,
Uday Hussein, the dictator's notorious son, took
his rest.

But now his man-made lake and its rows of simple
bungalows are the headquarters of "New England's
Own," the battalion of reservist Marines that has
been put in charge of a violent chunk of Al Anbar
Province. The battalion's various companies, such
as Charlie Company, are stationed throughout the
city of Fallujah.

The home base for 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, is a
forced oasis, a false paradise scooped from the
desert east of Fallujah. The lake, in the middle of
which is a bombed-out island where Uday's palace
was obliterated at the start of the war, is filled with
filthy, diverted water from the Euphrates River.
This strange holdover from Saddam Hussein's
regime is a 15-minute drive from the heart of the
city, where Connecticut's Charlie Company lives.

In a war whose bases are usually confiscated
buildings or empty patches of desert earth
surrounded by berms, Baharia stands out. Dotting
the shores of the lake are broken-down ticket
booths. The lakeside flower gardens and palms
struggle with the death of the irrigation system.
Bungalows are boarded up and sandbagged. The
only history that lives on are the rumors among
Marines of the atrocities that took place here under
Uday's eyes.

At Camp Baharia, Lt. Col. Chris Landro is the
authority now. He's the battalion commander, and
as such, he's the military leader of a swath of Iraq
under martial law. He runs this corner of the war,
sometimes from his office, where behind him the
U.S. and Marine Corps flags are crossed on a wall
pocked with bullet holes, but often on the roads
under his command.

Charlie Company is just one of several companies
Landro is responsible for. His headquarters and
weapons companies are here at the camp, which
they have steadily tried to improve. Though much
of it was wrecked when U.S. forces took the place
over -- leaving bullet holes, doors torn from walls
and tiled paths ground under tank treads -- they've
opened a chow hall and other amenities.

The strict, often repeated rule of Camp Baharia,
though, is this: No swimming. Though the desert
sun, creeping toward summer, has pushed the days
well past 100 degrees, the lake's waters are off
limits. Besides its questionable cleanliness, there's
also the belief the lake is home to plenty of
unexploded ordnance.