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Coalition troops sweep into Taliban stronghold of Marja

American,Afghan and British troops occupied crucial positions across the Taliban stronghold of Marja on Saturday....

American,Afghan and British troops occupied crucial positions across the Taliban stronghold of Marja on Saturday,encountering only sporadic fighting as they began the long and possibly bloody ordeal of house-to-house searches.

American,Afghan and British troops occupied crucial positions across the Taliban stronghold of Marja on Saturday,encountering only sporadic fighting as they began the long and possibly bloody ordeal of house-to-house searches.

The force of about 6,000 Marines and soldiers — a majority of them Afghan — began moving into the city before dawn. As Marines and soldiers marched into the area,several hundred more swooped out of the sky in helicopters into Marja itself. Marines from Company K,Third Battalion,Sixth Marines,landed near an intersection of two main roads at the northern fringes of Marja.

In the quiet dark of 2.40 am,Company K met no resistance. But none of the Marines believed the peace would last the night.

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Just after midnight,aircraft bombed the southernmost portion of Marja,where officials believed foreign fighters were hiding. Later,Marines and Afghan soldiers began setting up cordons to the northeast,south and west of the city,in anticipation of a ground assault that was expected to begin within hours.

The operation,dubbed Moshtarak,which means “together” in Dari,is the largest offensive military operation since the American-led coalition invaded the country in 2001. Its aim is to flush the Taliban out of an area — about 75 square miles — where insurgents have been staging attacks.

Marja,a town of 80,000 residents,stands as the Taliban’s largest sanctuary,until now a virtual no-go zone for American,British and Afghan troops.

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The invasion of Marja is part of a larger campaign to secure a 200-mile arc that would bisect major cities in Helmand and Kandahar,where Taliban are the strongest. That campaign,expected to last months,is designed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.

The troops began moving into Marja before first light,making their way through a broad,flat area crisscrossed by irrigation canals and scattered with opium factories as well as several hundred hidden bombs.

0Commanders said they expected the heavy fighting to be over in a number of days. At that point,the commanders say,the overriding purpose of the campaign will take shape,when they bring in a fully formed Afghan government and security force that can hold the city. American and Afghan officers say they are worried that homemade bombs could slow them down. Those bombs,though rudimentary,are often powerful.

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Several hundred Taliban fighters are believed to be inside the city as well,which could make for a close and bloody fight. Despite that,the NATO and Afghan attackers appear to enjoy a huge numerical advantage — possibly more than 10 to 1.

American commanders and Afghan officials have said for weeks that an invasion of Marja was imminent,in an effort to chase away as many Taliban fighters as possible.

The American and Afghan troops moving into the city are setting for themselves a very high standard. They have urged the Afghans to stay in their homes. But that could make it difficult to avoid killing noncombatants.

“The message for the Taliban is: It will be easy,or it will be hard,but we are coming,” Brig Gen Larry Nicholson,commander of the United States Marines in Helmand Province,told the men of Company K before the operation began. “At the end of the day,the Afghan flag will be over Marja.”

First published on: 14-02-2010 at 02:59:56 am
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