BAGHDAD, Iraq – They were one of the first Marine battalions to do a third tour in Iraq, a battle-hardened group of young men who seemed older than their years.

When I last saw the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, they were on yet another offensive, just landed in Haditha only 10 months after storming through Fallujah. In Haditha, they faced an unnervingly quiet city whose lazy, waving palm trees hid a resilient insurgency.

The Marines I observed were sharp, thoroughly searching homes as they swarmed Haditha’s streets. Their commanders gave thoughtful responses to my questions. The unit fired only a few shots as it retook the city in just a couple days.

Now, a few of these Marines, from the battalion’s Kilo Company, are under investigation in the killings of up to two dozen civilians in Haditha. The allegations threaten to undermine the military’s efforts in Iraq. President Bush, struggling to sustain public support for the war, says he’s troubled by the reports.

I spent about 10 days with the battalion, including three to four days with Kilo Company when the Marines transformed a commandeered school into their headquarters. I remember talking to Marines on foot patrols, stopping to interview them as they nailed up fliers urging Iraqis to vote in the constitutional referendum.

Residents didn’t seem overtly hostile to the American presence, which led some newcomers to mistake the place as an idle, carefree city.

Some Marines called their latest mission “boring” compared to the last assignment in Fallujah. But the wiser ones knew the insurgents would eventually fight back – and take a toll.

Iraq’s most wanted terror leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once had a home in Haditha, commanders said.

Before the 3rd Battalion’s arrival, the lethality of Haditha already was clear. Over three days last August, 20 Marines from an Ohio-based reserve unit were killed, including several I had met on prior visits to the city. The local police force had deserted en masse after insurgents overran police headquarters.

For several months, Haditha was a no-man’s-land. There weren’t enough U.S. troops to patrol all the cities in the western desert, so Marines periodically swooped in to chase out insurgents, who would return later.

In between, insurgents had weeks and even months to set up traps and ambushes.

Over 30 roadside bombs were found when I was in Haditha in October.

The battalion was remarkably open to the media, and the Marines seemed mature and self-confident. For several days, I slept on a crowded schoolroom floor alongside a company commander and several senior Marines. I sat in on meetings that most commanders would have barred me from.

At least two officers attended the U.S. Naval Academy, including one who was named a Marshall Scholar, and another well-spoken lieutenant in Kilo Company. They clearly were a select group, nurtured within the military’s finest institutions and trained to lead an important mission.

I remember 1st Lt. David Jackson, a fast-talking New Yorker, spewing a string of crisp directives into his headset and his platoon automatically reacting.

They also seemed sensitive to local concerns.

On one mission, a lieutenant from Kilo Company ordered his Marine lookouts down from the rooftop of a house they temporarily occupied. The homeowner, a middle-aged mother, had started weeping and the Marine couldn’t stomach the crying.

Another officer, Capt. Timothy Strabbing, who graduated at the top of his class at the Naval Academy, gave me thoughtful answers about how best to stabilize the city.

But, for all their experience and obvious military skill, there was something else that caught my attention.

Several Marines approached me and asked my opinion about a controversial incident during the Fallujah offensive in the fall of 2004.

A Marine from the battalion shot and killed a wounded, unarmed man in a mosque. The killing was videotaped by a cameraman and broadcast worldwide.

Several Marines wanted to know if I thought the shooting was justified. I hadn’t examined the footage. I saw it in passing on CNN. I wasn’t there, and I didn’t claim to understand the raging hell the storming of Fallujah must have been.

But some Marines were eager to discuss the shooting, arguing that the Marine was entirely justified in firing at a perceived threat.

To them, it was a litmus test to identify those who understood combat. The Marine Corps agreed on some level, opting not to press charges against the Marine. Only one Marine in the battalion, in a private conversation, said he believed the Marine had done wrong by shooting the man.

Some of these younger Marines looked so much older than their years. It was scary to think they were still not old enough to buy a beer back home but had already seen the unspeakable.

During quieter moments on foot patrols, I learned that there were several 20-year-olds on their third tours in Iraq. One, from Michigan, took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the suppression of the Najaf uprising, and then the Fallujah offensive in 2004.

Some said they’d had enough.

“I get out of the Marine Corps in seven months and I can’t wait,” Cpl. Daniel Trigg of Olympia, Wash., said at the time.

Others told me they were finished with the military, too.

But some said they had adjusted and enjoyed this life of abrupt shifts from relaxing in San Diego, near their home base of Camp Pendleton, to enduring mayhem in the Iraqi desert.

Just a few miles from where the alleged massacre occurred, 14 Marines were killed in a bombing near Haditha on Aug. 3 last year, only a month before the 3-1 arrived for its third Iraq tour.

Minutes after the Aug. 3 attack, Marines covered the maimed corpses of their friends with cheap military blankets. A Marine officer later described to me the rage that immediately consumed his unit, swelled by the knowledge that local residents likely saw the men who planted the bomb that killed their friends.

But restraint held that day.

“We don’t do that. We’re better than that,” the officer told me just a couple of weeks later.

I’ve heard other Marines talk about the temptation to seek reckless vengeance, often fueled by exasperation toward an unhelpful Iraqi public either too fearful of insurgents or spiteful toward the Americans. On that day in August, the powerful, raw emotion that sought revenge was quelled.

But, if investigators are right, the rage in Haditha wasn’t contained for much longer.

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