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Western soldier killed in Marja

The coalition toll rises to 13, including one Afghan. A commander says key sites are secured, though progress has been slowed by surprisingly accurate Taliban snipers and a network of mines.

February 20, 2010|By Laura King
  • Afghan soldiers kneel in formation with U.S. troops during a patrol in the Badula Qulp area, near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. They are supporting the effort in nearby Marja.
Afghan soldiers kneel in formation with U.S. troops during a patrol in the… (PIER PAOLO CITO, Associated…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Following the deadliest day yet for coalition forces seeking to drive the Taliban from the town of Marja in southern Afghanistan, another Western service member was killed Friday by small-arms fire, military officials said.

Surprisingly accurate Taliban snipers, together with intricate webs of roadside bombs, slowed the progress of the offensive as it neared the end of its first week. Commanders say key goals are being met, but they acknowledge that clearing operations around the town probably will take about a month.

A Western military statement said "determined pockets of resistance" in Marja persisted Friday in the form of sometimes- intense firefights and ambushes. The nationality of the latest fatality was not immediately disclosed, but the circumstances were described as a "small-arms fire attack."

U.S. Marines seized a strongly defended compound south of Marja that appeared to have been a Taliban headquarters, the Associated Press reported. They found photos of fighters posing with their weapons, dozens of Taliban- issued ID cards and graduation diplomas from a training camp in Pakistan.

A day earlier, six service members with NATO's International Security Assistance Force were killed by explosions and small-arms fire. That doubled the coalition toll to date in the operation, which, including Friday's death, now stands at 12 Western troops and one Afghan soldier killed in action.

About 120 insurgents have been killed, Afghan officials estimate.

Though the U.S. Marines spearheading the attack in Helmand province are far better trained and armed, the insurgents have had some success with classic guerrilla tactics.

Taliban sharpshooters had long had a reputation for being anything but. However, coalition field officers say they have been encountering snipers considerably more skilled -- in part, perhaps, because the insurgents had many months to prepare for this battle.

The Marines heavily publicized plans to seize Marja, in hopes that less committed insurgents would leave and civilians in the area would be spared an even bigger battle.

As it is, the offensive is the largest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power.

The Western assault began Feb. 13 with troops being airlifted over Taliban front lines and miles of minefields and dropped in the town center. That tactic was repeated on a much smaller scale Friday, when elite Marine reconnaissance squads were airdropped into areas where snipers were known to be operating, the Associated Press reported.

At the outset of the assault, the Marines' commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, had expressed optimism that key sites could be secured by nightfall of the first day. That goal has largely been achieved, said British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, who is the top regional commander, but it took nearly a full week of fighting.

Carter, speaking Thursday by videolink, told reporters at the Pentagon that the "end of the beginning" was at hand in Marja, but that it probably would take several more weeks to fully secure the town. At this point, coalition troops -- U.S., British and Afghan -- control major roadways and bazaars, and Afghan police have begun arriving to help with the transition from warfare back to some semblance of normal life for residents.

Coalition officials hope that attention can be shifted soon to governance-building. As soon as Marja is deemed secure enough, a newly appointed deputy district governor will be brought in to begin overseeing the restoration of public services. During the time that the town has been a Taliban stronghold, schools closed and government authority vanished.

Elsewhere in Nad Ali district, where Marja is located, the military said "stabilization projects" such as repairing canals and opening schools had begun.

Military officials have also been attending shuras, traditional gatherings of tribal leaders.

Times staff writer Tony Perry in Nawa, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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