- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2010

MARJAH, Afghanistan | Marines moving by land from the north linked up Tuesday with U.S. units that have faced nearly constant Taliban attack in the four days since they were dropped by helicopter into this insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

Also Tuesday, U.S. artillery fired non-lethal smoke rounds to disperse Taliban fighters in Marjah — the first time cannons have been used in the fight to drive the militants from their logistical and opium poppy-smuggling base. Commanders refused a Marine request to fire deadly high-explosive rounds because the unit on the ground could not be sure civilians weren’t at risk.

The linkup between the two Marine rifle companies and their Afghan army partners will enable the U.S. to expand its control in Marjah, situated in Helmand province 380 miles southwest of Kabul.

Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines moved through fields of hidden bombs and booby traps and braved heavy sniper fire to join up with the same battalion’s Kilo Company, which was airdropped into the town in the first hours of the operation Saturday.

Lt. Gordon Emmanuel, a platoon commander in Kilo Company, said the Marines landed without encountering Taliban fire but came under sustained attack as they fanned out from the landing zone.

A Taliban spokesman, however, claimed that insurgents retain control of the town and that coalition forces who “descended from helicopters in limited areas of Marjah” were now “under siege.”

Spokesman Tariq Ghazniwal extended an invitation by e-mail to foreign journalists to visit Marjah, saying the trip would “show who have the upper hand in the area.”

About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the big offensive around Marjah, which has an estimated 80,000 inhabitants and was the largest southern town under Taliban control.

A top Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund, dismissed the offensive as NATO propaganda and said on the group’s Web site that Marjah was militarily insignificant.

NATO said a service member taking part in the Marjah operation was killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday — the third confirmed death among international forces since the attack on the town began. An American and a Briton were killed Saturday. NATO did not identify the latest victim by nationality.

U.S. officials said Taliban resistance in Marjah seemed more disorganized Tuesday than in previous days, when small teams of insurgents swarmed around Marine and Afghan army positions firing rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

“We’re not seeing coordinated attacks like we did originally. We’re still getting small-arms fire, but it’s sporadic, and hit-and-run tactics,” said Marine spokesman Capt. Abraham Sipe. “As a whole, while there is still resistance, it is of a disorganized nature.”

Nevertheless, Taliban have not given up. Insurgent snipers hiding in haystacks in poppy fields exchanged fire with Marines and Afghan troops as they swept south.

Insurgents tried but failed to shoot down an Osprey aircraft with rocket-propelled grenades as Cobra attack helicopters fired missiles at Taliban positions, including a machine-gun bunker.

Marines and Afghan soldiers continued house-to-house searches, removing bombs and booby traps as they moved through town. Inside some compounds Tuesday, squads found small doses of heroin, a Taliban photo album with fighters posing with AK-47s, and large propaganda wall paintings of insurgents shooting down helicopters.

Three more Afghan civilians were killed in the assault, NATO forces said, highlighting the toll on the population from an offensive aimed at making civilians safer.

The deaths — in three separate incidents — come after two U.S. missiles struck a house on the outskirts of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, half of them children. Afghan officials said three Taliban fighters were in the house at the time.


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