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Battle-Weary Marine Unit Awaits 'Taste Of Freedom'

Soule recalled looters invading a hospital that his unit was trying to guard. "We ran them off, but they kept coming back," he said. "They'd cut their arm on one side breaking into the hospital looting and then come in another door to get medical care."

The confusion made the Marines feel helpless and unprepared. "We weren't a police force. We didn't know how to deal with it," Sitko recalled.

Cpl. Justin Soule takes a break in the room he shares with 13 other members of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, in a gutted soda factory in Fallujah. The battalion is on its third rotation in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad two years ago. (Photos Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)

Driving through the city in a Humvee with three other officers, he spotted a man with an AK-47 rifle in an electronics store. In an effort to protect the surrounding crowd, Sitko and the others got out of the Humvee and disarmed the man.

"They all applauded," he said. "We had cleared the way for them to loot."

When the battalion received a second call to Iraq in late 2003, many of the troops felt ambivalent. "We'd already been to a war, we were just going to a combat zone," said Lance Cpl. Michael Hinson, 21, an M-249 machine gunner from Odessa, Tex.

Yet with the insurgency in full swing, the unit faced some of its toughest battles yet. In early April 2004, it was abruptly ordered to Fallujah to take part in an assault on the city a few days after four American contractors were killed and mutilated there.

The unit pushed three blocks into Fallujah but was halted when U.S. and Iraqi officials ordered the assault aborted. The Marines say they and their commanders felt intensely disappointed.

"I believe we should have pushed through Fallujah then. We would have been a lot more successful, and there would have been a lot less bombing," Hinson said at a camp on the outskirts of Fallujah, where thousands of homes were destroyed in a large-scale offensive in November.

Soon after the Darkside arrived in Fallujah last year, one of Hinson's close friends, Lance Cpl. Torrey L. Gray, was killed by sniper fire. "The moment I will never forget is when our sergeant came up and said [Gray] was fatally wounded," said Hinson. "We were like brothers."

A month later, Hinson almost died as well. A bomb exploded under his convoy, hurling shrapnel into the vehicles. Hinson lost sight in his left eye. "We just heard a beep, not a boom or anything. Then it was a blur," he said. "We had nine Purple Hearts."

In January, the battalion was called to Iraq again, ordered to deploy about a month earlier than anticipated to help provide security for Iraq's elections. The news was unwelcome but not entirely unexpected -- some of the Marines say they had kept their duffle bags packed.

U.S. policymakers "didn't have the foresight of seeing that it wouldn't be an easy war. They didn't think it out," said Soule, listening to Texas country music as he took a break one recent evening in his cramped room at the gutted Fallujah soda factory.

Conditions at the camp in downtown Fallujah are austere compared with many bases in Iraq today. With the staple food still packaged meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), Soule and his buddies say they prefer to survive on cheese puffs, PayDay bars, CornNuts and other junk food sent from home.

Infrequent showers are taken by filling a black plastic bag with water, letting it warm in the sun and suspending it for a brisk splash. Lacking even a portable toilet, the Marines dispose of human waste in "wag bags" and later burn them.

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