AL-HIILLAH, Iraq -- As the month-long battle for Iraqi freedom comes to a close, a small, battle-hardened group from the I Marine Expeditionary Force begin to realize that during the rush to Baghdad, they never faced a gauntlet like this before.
"Stay together," cautions Navy Commander Emilio Morrero, Deputy chaplain for I MEF as he prepares his troops the an onslaught that he has already experienced before. "When we get there don't buy anything right away, just let them know that when the tour is over we will be back."
Children hawking everything from currency with Saddam's face on it, to cold cans of soda flock to the warriors who only days before were dodging bullets. Now, they have a chance to taste the fruits of Iraqi freedom, and experience one of the great archeological wonders of the world - the ruins of ancient Babylon.
"For 4,000 years, soldiers and armies marched here and each time they looted and pillaged this city," said Morrero. "And each time they took treasures from here that are now sitting in museums around the world."
The group of men and women wearing dusty desert camouflage uniforms draws closer to the ancient city walls. The chaplain, whose son is about to graduate from high school this month continues, "When we arrived, we secured this place for the Iraqi people and we told them that, 'we wanted to preserve it and we wanted to give it back to you because it is your treasure.'"
These are some of the first members of I MEF to experience the grandeur of the ancient city that many as small children read about in Bible stories.
"This is awesome, its like a pilgrimage to me," said Marine Cpl. Peter R. Jorgensen, a Reservist with the 6th Communications Battalion, Brooklyn, N.Y. "My dad used to talk to me about Babylon. This is where Daniel was imprisoned and where he was thrown into the lion's den."
The soft-spoken curator of the grounds, Mohammed Taher, personally escorts his camouflaged students around his city.
The grounds were partially rebuilt by Saddam Hussein, so the darker crumbling ruins are mixed in with newly built walls and structures. Walking on ancient roads, Taher will stop the group and exclaim, this is where "Alexander the great died," or "This is where we think the hanging gardens once stood."
Later on, he points to a great gate that is obviously new and with a tinge of sadness in his voice he will explain that the original was taken by the Germans and rebuilt there.
"They are just awestruck that this is our perspective," said Morrero. "That we secured this for them. This is so different than what anybody else has ever done here."
The jovial professor of archeology likes having the Marines in his ancient city, not only as protectors of this world treasure but also as eager students.
"Crazy Saddam was very bad for us," said Taher as he guides his group to the site of the first asphalt road that dates to more than 4,000 years ago. "He flooded this area and destroyed many artifacts."
He also points to the new construction around the ruins. "Nobody builds on top of an archeological site," said Taher while he shakes his head in discuss. "Only Saddam, only Saddam."