NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) – 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, commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.

“We wanted to lighten things up, take the tension off what we’re about to do,” said the 42-year-old commander from Los Gatos, Calif., who dreamed up the “First Annual ‘Ben-Hur’ Memorial Chariot Race.”

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 in the area.

On Saturday, Marines who endure daily mortar and rocket fire packed unneeded personal belongings into shipping crates, loaded up their Humvees and spoke of what they expected was the last mail pickup for some time.

Tension and anticipation ran high among the young Marines surrounding Fallujah, many of whom have never tasted combat.

But first, the Marines had a little fun with the horses.

“Friends, Romans, Marines: Lend me your ears for the rules,” bellowed the master of ceremonies – Capt. Jonathan Vaughn, 30, of Cleveland. “If all horses die before the finish line, whichever makes it the farthest, wins.”

Vaughn’s rule seemed prudent since some of the horses didn’t look in prime racing shape, although none died. And 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. The horse ran straight over the finish line, scattering Marine bystanders and slamming snout-first into sand-filled barriers. The horse was unhurt.

AP-ES-11-06-04 1518EST

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