by | Agence France Presse | 7 November 2004
NEAR FALLUJAH - With US forces massing outside Fallujah, 35 marines swayed to Christian rock music and asked Jesus Christ to protect them in what could be the biggest battle since American troops invaded Iraq last year.
Men with buzzcuts and clad in their camouflage waved their hands in the air, M-16 assault rifles beside them, and chanted heavy metal-flavoured lyrics in praise of Christ late on Friday in a yellow-brick chapel.
They counted among thousands of troops surrounding the city of Fallujah, seeking solace as they awaited Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's decision on whether or not to invade Fallujah.
"You are the sovereign. You're name is holy. You are the pure spotless lamb," a female voice cried out on the loudspeakers as the marines clapped their hands and closed their eyes, reflecting on what lay ahead for them.
The US military, with many soldiers coming from the conservative American south and midwest, has deep Christian roots.
In times that fighting looms, many soldiers draw on their evangelical or born-again heritage to help them face the battle.
"It's always comforting. Church attendance is always up before the big push," said first sergeant Miles Thatford.
"Sometimes, all you've got is God."
Between the service's electric guitar religious tunes, marines stepped up on the chapel's small stage and recited a verse of scripture, meant to fortify them for war.
One spoke of their Old Testament hero, a shepherd who would become Israel's king, battling the Philistines 3 000 years ago.
"Thus David prevailed over the Philistines," the marine said, reading from scripture, and the marines shouted back "Hoorah, King David," using their signature grunt of approval.
The marines drew parallels from the verse with their present situation, where they perceive themselves as warriors fighting barbaric men opposed to all that is good in the world.
"Victory belongs to the Lord," another young marine read.
Their chaplain, named Horne, told the worshippers they were stationed outside Fallujah to bring the Iraqis "freedom from oppression, rape, torture and murder ... We ask you God to bless us in that effort."
The marines then lined up and their chaplain blessed them with holy oil to protect them.
"God's people would be anointed with oil," the chaplain said, as he lightly dabbed oil on the marines' foreheads.
The crowd then followed him outside their small auditorium for a baptism of about a half-dozen marines who had just found Christ.
The young men lined up and at least three of them stripped down to their shorts.
The three laid down in a rubber dinghy filled with water and the chaplain's assistant, navy corpsman Richard Vaughn, plunged their heads beneath the surface.
Smiling, Vaughn baptised them "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Dripping wet, corporal Keith Arguelles beamed after his baptism.
"I just wanted to make sure I did this before I headed into the fight," he said on the military base not far from the city of Fallujah.