A bit of 'Ben-Hur' in Iraq as Marines unwind before battle
NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq - For U.S. Marines awaiting orders to attack Iraq's rebel-held Fallujah, the bags are packed, trucks are loaded and letters have been sent home, leaving one final, pre-assault diversion: the ''Ben-Hur.''
Blowing off steam, hundreds of Marines took their cue from the 1959 Charlton Heston classic and gathered Saturday at a base near Fallujah for a slapstick chariot race featuring cobbled-together carts and confiscated Iraqi horses.
''These men are about to face the greatest personal and professional tests of their lifetimes,'' said Lt. Col. Willy Buhl, 42, commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. ''We wanted to lighten things up, take the tension off what we're about to do.''
The Marine charioteers, wearing togas over their body armor, waved baseball bats done up as spiked maces and jumped into carts forged from cast-off vehicle parts. The makeshift chariots were pulled by Iraqi horses commandeered from looters.
Some 10,000 U.S. troops have encircled Fallujah, a city 40 miles west of Baghdad, to attack Sunni Muslim fighters there.
''We're ready to go. I'm just ready to get this done. I want to go and kill people, so we can go home,'' said Lance Cpl. Joseph Bowman, 20, from North Zulch, Texas.
But first, the Marines had a little fun with the horses. The race didn't come off exactly as planned - one steed turned on its charioteer in the first race and tried to bite the Marine - who fended the horse off with a wooden trident, drawing loud cheers.
Instead of chariot-to-chariot races, the Marines held timed heats. Among the highlights for the assembled Marines: When the camp dog, Butch, limped onto the racecourse and grazed on the horses' droppings.
A weapons team duo eventually prevailed in the final heat.