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They’re going to need more than Ben-Hur out there. The assault on Fallujah is imminent, and Marines are trying to break pre-battle tension:

“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.

Some 10,000 U.S. troops have encircled Fallujah, a city 40 miles west of Baghdad, to attack Sunni Muslim fighters there — if the final go-ahead is given by Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

U.S. jets pounded Fallujah early Saturday in the heaviest airstrikes in six months — including five 500-pound bombs dropped on insurgent targets. Insurgents struck elsewhere in central Iraq with suicide car bombs, mortars and rockets, killing more than 30 people and wounding dozens, including more than 20 Americans. “

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding