MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Afghan police were deployed today in an area recaptured from the Taliban by U.S. Marines this week, in the early phase of a plan to put the country firmly under the control of Afghan authorities.
Nearly 200 Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) arrived in the town of Marjah in Afghanistan's violent southern Helmand Province, which until the start of a U.S.-led NATO offensive a week ago was the last big Taliban bastion there.
NATO a week ago launched Operation "Moshtarak" (Together) in Marjah, a big opium-poppy production center, aiming to flush out militants and then leave Afghan police and authorities in charge.
The offensive is the first since U.S. President Barack Obama sent an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to tame the Taliban ahead of a planned U.S. troop drawdown in 2011.
The crux of the plan is for Afghan authorities to win support from a public that has long viewed the government as incapable and police as corrupt.
"We are here to bring peace and security to your town, we want to help you," Captain Mohammad Kazem, commander of a company of Afghan police, told residents of Marjah who gathered in the bazaar of Koru Chareh today.
U.S. Marines in Koru Chareh faced stiff resistance from the Taliban in the first few days of their assault on Marjah. A week later they still take regular potshots from snipers and every day they find insurgents planting bombs on nearby roads.
A Marine air assault killed six militants spotted planting bombs on February 19, and two more were killed when the bomb they were planting exploded accidentally, a Marine officer said.
'Complain To Us'
The arrival of Afghan police in Marjah, which had been held by the Taliban and described by NATO commanders as a festering sore where there had been no government presence, was broadly welcomed by villagers in Koru Chareh's bazaar.
"I've seen plenty of Taliban in Marjah before. It's good the police have arrived," 45-year-old Jumegol Abdolah told Reuters.
The operation to secure Marjah is a major test for NATO and President Hamid Karzai's government, which is under pressure from Western leaders to provide its own security ahead of a July 2011 deadline for the start of withdrawal by U.S. troops.
"I'm happy that they [the police] have come. They have to work with us and cooperate and bring security," 22-year-old farmer Taj Mohammad told Reuters.
Afghans in dangerous provinces like Helmand have complained about police in the past, accusing them of stealing and extortion through "taxes" on civilians.
"If the Afghan army or Afghan police want money from you, you can complain to us and tell us. You should inform us that someone is doing this to you," Kazem told the meeting today. "We're here to help you, to work with you."
Kazem said his officers were trained in Kabul and came from 34 different Afghan provinces.
"Those problems from before were because the police were local and locally hired. My company has men from all over Afghanistan and we are here just for peace and security," he told Reuters.
Despite the remaining pockets of resistance in Marjah, the bazaar in Koru Chareh was the scene of the first meeting between civilians and the U.S. Marines' Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, which cleared the town of Taliban insurgents.
The Marines want to re-open the bazaar and are encouraging shopkeepers, many of whom have been holed up in their homes because of the fighting, to return to the market.
"It is my hope that this village becomes the jewel of Marjah," Bravo Company's commander, Captain Ryan Sparks, told villagers through a translator.