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Between bombs and incoming shells, tanning and `Star Wars' offer soldiers respite from war

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) One young man cannonballed into the cool blue pool, another applied suntan lotion to his girlfriend's shoulders and a third swung his machine gun onto a lawn chair. A pair of Black Hawk helicopters hovered above.

The men and women could have passed for American college students, but they were U.S. soldiers at Camp Liberty in western Baghdad, seeking a break from the war raging just beyond the blast walls. Hours later, some would don helmets and flak jackets, jump into armored vehicles and patrol through violent Baghdad neighborhoods.

''When I come here I don't feel like I'm in Iraq,'' said Sgt. Jeanne Crochet, a nurse in the 256th Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard, who sat next to her suntanning boyfriend, Sgt. Bryan Ebeling, as Jimmy Buffett tunes played in the background. ''I don't complain much about living conditions.''

In this war, troops particularly infantrymen who regularly patrol and conduct raids struggle to relax and get away from the violence that relentlessly creeps up on them. Even inside bases such as Camp Liberty that stretch for miles, insurgents continue to kill and injure soldiers by launching mortars and rockets over fortified walls.

Just last week word flashed through the camp of a big-screen showing of the new Star Wars movie, generating a flood of excitement.

But then insurgents fired a rocket into the base, slamming close to shops and fast-food eateries where the movie was to be shown, killing one soldier.

''The soldiers came in and yelled, 'Save yourselves and run to the bunker,''' remembered Jericho Aquino, a Filipino worker at the Cinnabon dessert shop close to where the rocket struck.

Future screenings were canceled.

But the U.S. military has brought other slices of Americana to this dusty complex of white trailers and palaces once used by Saddam Hussein.

A Burger King and Pizza Hut compliment a dining hall that can compete with most corporate dining facilities lobster and a dozen desserts are often on menu and a local store resembles a major retail outlet, complete with rows of CDs, DVDs, and big screen TVs.

Some soldiers relax over video games or bootleg DVDs on their laptops. Others look forward to seeing celebrities. A recent visitor was actor Vince Vaughn, a local favorite.

But the most popular venue on base may be the palace pools where soldiers lie in the sun or swim with friends, ignoring the occasional explosion that reverberates in the distance. In one pool in a man-made lagoon jutting into a pond, soldiers preparing to return to the U.S. relaxed and looked back on their year in Iraq.

''It was frustrating sometimes. It was like we were fighting ghosts,'' said Sgt. Wayne Brekke, of Aloha, Ore., a combat engineer assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. Brekke said it was difficult to fight hidden insurgents who detonated roadside bombs by phone or sporadically fired from neighborhoods that they could quickly blend into.

Most of the soldiers said their work had a positive impact in the capital, pointing to areas such as Haifa Street where attacks have been reduced. But the war that continued throughout the city was fresh in many minds Brekke's unit suffered casualties on their last two patrols, including one attack that was videotaped by militants and later posted on their Web site.

''It was mentally and physically exhausting, especially in this heat,'' said Brekke, two days before a flight was scheduled take him away from his 12-hour Baghdad patrol shifts and fly him to Kuwait and then to California. ''You never knew when something was going to happen.''

The soldiers knew the burden of a yearlong deployment was at an end and looked forward to vacation plans long in the making. ''I'm going to Vegas, man,'' Brekke said.

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