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Soldiers in Iraq discover religion

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TIKRIT, Iraq — With war and death on his mind, Spc. Barry Page was baptized recently in the Tigris River by an Army chaplain at the sprawling U.S. military headquarters on the fabled river's banks.

A Southern Baptist working as a military policeman, Page said he decided to "reannounce his life to Christ" in the birthplace of civilization.

"I realized death is walking in this place," said the 22-year-old from Houston, his uniform and boots soaking wet. "It can be any of us. Next time it could be me."

The temperature was 120 degrees Fahrenheit as Page and three other soldiers waited outside one of Saddam Hussein's palatial complexes to take their turn in the water. The baptism took place behind the palace, where the river waters surround an artificial island overgrown with palm trees.

"This ground has a historical, biblical meaning," Page said. "I can say I was in the same waters. I'm glad I found peace with God."

Each of the soldiers took careful steps into the arms of Army chaplain Capt. Xuan Tran, of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment. Waist deep in the river, Tran briefly submerged the soldiers, recited a verse from the Bible, and proclaimed "Amen" three times.

Corp. Christian Gaspard, 24, from Baton Rouge, La., said he was baptized before but did it again Sunday because "he didn't live like a Christian."

The father of a 3-year-old daughter said his wife was expecting another child in September, when he hopes to be home.

Tran said he was always happy "to have soldiers dedicating themselves to God."

"Some have done it before, others are doing for the first time," Tran said.

He said the reasons vary from being in a war situation to rediscovering their faith.

"For many of them, they are away from their wives and children, and they have time to think and rededicate themselves to God," he said.

In August, Tran said he baptized at least 16 soldiers.

Since the troops of the 4th Infantry seized Saddam's hometown in May, they have come under increasing attacks by Iraqi guerrillas firing rocket-propelled grenades and laying homemade bombs. Soldiers detain Saddam loyalists virtually every night, seize caches of weapons and ammunition and conduct round-the-clock patrols of the tense streets of Tikrit, the former president's hometown.