HADITHA DAM, Iraq -- "Welcome to this dam place," said Maj. Mark Winn. He couldn't resist. "Take all the dam pictures you want."
Some 130 miles northwest of Baghdad, Winn and about 400 other U.S. Marines live inside a dam. It is an incongruous assignment in a country that conjures images of blowing sand and hot desert. But here they are, bunked in the former offices of a massive, Russian-built hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River.
In a cool dawn light, Marines in Zodiac boats approach an island downriver from the Haditha Dam, on the Euphrates River in northwestern Iraq.
(Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)
When the U.S. military planned its invasion of Iraq, strategists pondered the Haditha Dam, recalling oil wells set ablaze by then-President Saddam Hussein in his scorched-earth retreat from Kuwaiti during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Sabotage to this dam could unleash walls of water from Lake Qadisiya on towns and villages for hundreds of miles. It would cripple the country's electricity supply. It would destroy vast fields of irrigated farmland.
So Army Rangers were dropped in early in the war, and they seized the dam April 1, 2003, eight days before the fall of Baghdad. It has been in U.S. hands ever since. The 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment is the latest outfit assigned to guard it, arriving here about one month ago from Camp Lejeune, N.C. They share duties with 150 Azerbaijani troops, part of the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq.
"It's the nicest place in Iraq," said Winn, 41, a 16-year Marine Corps veteran with a ready smile. "It's 10 degrees cooler than anyplace else. We don't get the dust here. And from the top of the dam, we have the best view in the country."
From there, 10 stories above the water, Marines watch the Euphrates weave its serpentine course through dusty desert ridges. On its way, the river nourishes periodic explosions of green abundance, oases of date palms, grass and vegetable gardens.
The dam constantly vibrates with the low rumble of turbines, giving the place the feel of a ship. The Marines' bunks are jammed into linoleum-floored rooms rigged with fluorescent lights. They trudge up and down the 286 stairs, hang their wash on the building's terraced levels and watch huge carp feed in the froth of the spillway discharge. Terns and gulls swoop in the air currents.
"I never thought I'd be on a boat in Iraq," said Sgt. Joseph Wright, 24, from Standish, Me., as he cruised Lake Qadisiya late one night. In the cockpit of a patrol boat bristling with armament, Wright throttled up the twin 300-horsepower jet motors, making the boat rear on its stern and sending up a roostertail wake.
"It can get a little repetitious," he said of the patrol, as he watched for boats approaching the dam. "But we are happy to do it. For a group of people who are intent on destabilizing Iraq, all it would take is a boat loaded with explosives."
The dam was completed in 1987 atop a small island that was home to Hassan Yahier Hassan, now the dam manager. Hassan said his father was heartbroken when his land was taken, and "even today," he added, "we are sad to recall our good life there, when we could just take whatever fruit and fish we wanted."
But Hassan, 53, recognizes the importance of the dam. It is the second-largest of eight hydroelectric dams in Iraq. Its output -- 670 megawatts when the water flow is strong -- serves to stabilize the entire Iraqi power grid, increasing output when needed, reducing it when not. And irrigation canals that feed a wide swath of rice fields south of the dam depend on a steady flow of water, held in the big lake during winter and spring when snows melt in the Turkish mountains.
The Marines patrol not only the lake and river but also the long desert highways, searching for roadside bombs. A contingent patrols an ammunition dump. Another group lives with and trains the Iraqi National Guard in the town of Haditha, 10 miles south of the dam. With all the duties, sleep is often forgone. The Marines don't complain much, except about the chow.
"I volunteered to be in the Marine Corps," said 1st Lt. James Haigh, 26, of Kankakee, Ill. "I never expected to be on a dam in Iraq watching green trees, but I think it's important. What we are doing is helping out the people in Iraq."
That feeling is not always reciprocated. Last month, two suicide car bombs were set off at the Haditha police station and the National Guard post shared by the Marines. Ten Iraqis were killed. Predictably in this land of conspiracy theories, the Americans were blamed. The town leaders regularly meet with Winn to ask him when he will leave. Roadside bombs are a constant threat. Even Hassan, the dam manager, wants the Americans to go.