- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010

MARJAH, Afghanistan | Afghan officials raised the national flag over Marjah on Thursday, asserting government control even as Marines searched for militant holdouts. Kabul also confirmed the arrest of another top Taliban leader - part of a roundup that could further strain the insurgent movement.

In Pakistan, officials said a top militant wanted in an attack on a U.S. Consulate was killed in a U.S. missile strike.

About 700 men in turbans and traditional caps gathered in a central market for the flag-raising ceremony, during which Abdul Zahir Aryan was installed as the top Afghan official in this town of 80,000 in Helmand province. The provincial governor told the crowd that authorities were eager to listen to requests from the townspeople and provide them with basic services that they didn’t have under the Taliban.

Taliban fighters still control about 25 percent of the 80-square-mile area in and around the town nearly two weeks after U.S. and Afghan forces launched their attack to seize Marjah, a major Taliban logistics-and-supply center and the largest community in the south under insurgent control.

Marines and Afghan soldiers slogged through bomb-laden fields of northern Marjah on Thursday in search of an estimated 100 Taliban and foreign fighter holdouts - the last significant pocket of insurgents left in the town. Progress was slowed by difficult terrain with no roads, few tracks and many hidden mines.

Several residents told Marines that the Taliban were falling back and trying to delay the allied advance with hidden bombs.

“I’d expect they can’t keep this up for long,” said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, a company commander in the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. He predicted the insurgents will soon hold their ground and fight.

Despite the insurgent holdouts, enough of the town has been secured for NATO and Afghan authorities to begin the most difficult part of the mission - restoring local government and rushing in public services to win the confidence of the population to dry up support for a Taliban return.

Mr. Aryan, the chief administrator, cannot work out of the main government building because the Taliban rigged it with bombs and booby traps.

The loss of Marjah comes as the Taliban is reeling from the arrests of key figures, including their No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was picked up this month in Pakistan.

Two Pakistani intelligence officers said that nearly 15 senior and midlevel Taliban figures have been detained in Pakistan in recent weeks.

An Afghan government spokesman, Siamak Herawi, said Thursday that Pakistani officials had told Afghan authorities that the top Taliban commander for eastern Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Kabir, was among those taken into custody.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials also said Thursday that a Pakistani Taliban commander wanted in the deadly 2006 bombing of the U.S. Consulate in Karachi was killed in a suspected CIA missile strike in northwest Pakistan.

Mohammed Qari Zafar was among at least 13 people killed Wednesday when three missiles slammed into a compound and a vehicle in the Dargah Mandi area of the North Waziristan tribal region on the border with Afghanistan, the officials said.

The U.S. government says Zafar, a senior member of the banned al Qaeda-linked militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was a key figure in the March 2006 suicide car bombing of the U.S. Consulate in Karachi that killed U.S. diplomat David Foy and three Pakistanis. The U.S. has posted a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. He is also suspected in of being involved in the September 2008 truck bomb blast at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad that killed 54 people.

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