- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2010

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Military commanders raised the Afghan flag in the bullet-ridden main market of the Taliban’s southern stronghold of Marjah on Wednesday as firefights continued to break out elsewhere in the town between holed-up militants and U.S. and Afghan troops.

About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the offensive around Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people that was the largest population center in southern Helmand province under Taliban control. NATO hopes to rush in aid and public services as soon as the town is secured to try to win the loyalty of the population.

With the assault in its fifth day, an Afghan army soldier climbed to the roof of an abandoned shop and raised a large bamboo pole with Afghanistan’s official green-and-red flag. A crowd including the provincial governor, a few hundred Marine and Afghan troops and handfuls of civilians — Afghan men in turbans and traditional loose tunics who were searched for weapons as they entered the bazaar — watched from below.

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The market was calm during the ceremony, and Marines there said they are in control of the neighborhood.

But the detritus of fighting was everywhere. The back of the building over which the flag waved had been blown away. Shops were riddled with bullet holes. Grocery stores and fruit stalls were left standing open, hastily deserted by their owners. White metal fences marked off areas that had not yet been cleared of bombs.

Afghan soldiers said they were guarding the shops to prevent looting and hoped the proprietors would soon feel safe enough to return.

The Marines and Afghan troops “saw sustained but less frequent insurgent activity” in Marjah on Wednesday, limited mostly to small-scale attacks, NATO said in a statement.

Marine officials have said that Taliban resistance has started to seem more disorganized than in the first few days of the assault, when small teams of insurgents swarmed around Marine and Afghan army positions firing rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The offensive in Marjah, about 380 miles southwest of Kabul, is the biggest assault since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and a major test of a retooled NATO strategy to focus on protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents.

About 40 insurgents have been killed since the offensive began Saturday. Four NATO service members and one Afghan soldier have been killed.

Even with caution on both the NATO and Afghan side, civilians have been killed, too. NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have been killed.

Insurgents, increasingly using civilians as human shields, fired at Afghan troops from inside or next to compounds where women and children appear to have been ordered to stand on a roof or in a window, said Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, the brigade commander for Afghan troops in Marjah.

“Especially in the south of Marjah, the enemy is fighting from compounds where soldiers can very clearly see women or children on the roof or in a second-floor or third-floor window,” Gen. Ghori said. “They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians.”

Gen. Ghori said troops have made choices either not to fire at the insurgents with civilians nearby or to target and advance much more slowly in order to distinguish between militants and civilians as they go.

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