Sunday, February 14, 2010

Marines under fire in former Taliban stronghold via Christian Science Monitor

Marines under fire in former Taliban stronghold

MARJAH, Afghanistan
Sun Feb 14, 2010 11:14am EST

MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Marines came under intense fire on Sunday after taking over a building in the heart of a Taliban stronghold targeted by a NATO-led offensive designed to put the Afghan government back in charge.


Taliban fighters unleashed automatic gunfire at NATO helicopters flying in and out of the town of Marjah, and fired on Marines at a ceremony to raise the Afghan flag over a building to mark progress in the offensive.

Captain Ryan Sparks compared the intensity of the fighting to the U.S.-led offensive against militants in the Iraqi town of Fallujah in 2004.

"In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we're coming in from different locations and working toward the center, so we're taking fire from all angles," Sparks said.

The offensive, one of NATO's biggest against the Taliban since the Afghan war began in 2001, is an early test of U.S. President Barack Obama's troop surge policy, intended to bring an end to a conflict that has lasted longer than World War Two.

Unlike Fallujah, where massive U.S. firepower demolished the city and left great bitterness against the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, the Marjah assault aims to eliminate militants while building goodwill for Afghan forces who will take over the area.

Marines in helicopters landed in Marjah district, the last big Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, on Saturday at the start of a campaign to impose government control on rebel-held areas before U.S. forces start a planned 2011 drawdown.

"I have always dreamed of raising the Afghanistan flag over Marjah," said 22-year-old Afghan soldier Almast Khan at the flag ceremony, before Marines protecting the building started coming under fire.


U.S. forces fired mortar rounds against a Taliban position on Sunday, and the militants fired a round back which landed in the Marines' compound but failed to explode. The Marines responded by firing rockets at the suspected militant position.

A senior Afghan army general in southern Afghanistan, Sher Mohammad Zazai, told Reuters on Sunday that between 30 to 35 insurgents had been killed since the operation in Marjah and the nearby Nad Ali districts started.

Citing commanders, Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said on the group's website it had launched direct attacks on NATO-led troops in several parts of Marjah and had surrounded some in one area.

Marjah has long been a breeding ground for insurgents and lucrative opium poppy cultivation, which Western countries say funds the insurgency. The scale of the problem was glaring at the compound taken over by the Marines.

Bags of drugs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars had been discovered, as were sacks of chemicals capable of producing 100 pounds of explosives, said Tim Coderre, a civilian adviser to Marine officials.

NATO commanders flagged the operation well before it kicked off, hoping to persuade Taliban fighters to flee and thereby avoiding a prolonged and destructive fight that could turn residents against the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

But it gave militants time to lay mines, booby-traps and improvised explosives. NATO said troops had recovered 250 kg of ammonium nitrate, used for making explosive, detonation cord and various other bomb-making ingredients during searches.

The 15,000-troop NATO operation is named Mushtarak, or "together," suggesting that NATO and Afghan forces are determined to work closely to restore stability to Afghanistan.

Even if NATO deals a heavy blow to the Taliban in Helmand, militants still operate from other sanctuaries inside Pakistan or close to the border.

U.S.-allied Pakistan is reluctant to pursue them as it sees these groups as assets to counter the influence of rival India in Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Ismail Sameem in Kandahar; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Bryson Hull)
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