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Militants Attack U.S. Marines During Afghan Offensive

U.S. Marines take position on a rooftop northeast of Marjah in Helmand Province.
MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A U.S. Marine company position came under intense fire from all sides today at a building where an Afghan flag had been raised to mark progress in a NATO offensive against a Taliban stronghold.

U.S. Marines spearheaded one of NATO's biggest offensives against the Taliban in Afghanistan on February 13, in an early test of U.S. President Barack Obama's troop surge policy.

Marines in helicopters landed in Marjah district, the last big Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, in the first hours of a NATO campaign to impose government control on rebel-held areas before U.S. forces start a planned 2011 drawdown.

Captain Ryan Sparks compared the intensity of the fighting to the U.S.-led offensive against foreign and Iraqi Al-Qaeda militants in the town of Fallujah in 2004.

"In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we're coming in from different locations and working toward the center, so we're taking fire from all angles," Sparks said.

NATO and Afghan troops may have advanced in an offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the attack -- one of several -- at the small flag-raising ceremony drew gunfire and suggested the Taliban had no intentions of laying down arms.

"I have always dreamed of raising the Afghanistan flag over Marjah," said 22-year-old Afghan soldier Almast Khan at the ceremony before Marines protecting the building started coming under gunfire attack.

A senior Afghan army general in southern Afghanistan, Sher Mohammad Zazai, told Reuters today that between 30 to 35 insurgents were killed since the operation in Marjah and the nearby Nad Ali districts started.

Citing commanders, Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said on the group's website that it had launched direct attacks on NATO-led troops in several parts of Marjah and had surrounded some in one area.

Marjah has long been a breeding ground for insurgents and lucrative opium poppy cultivation, which Western countries say funds the insurgency.

The scale of the problem was glaring at the compound taken over by the Marines.

Bags of drugs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars had been discovered, as were sacks of chemicals capable of producing 100 pounds of explosives, said Tim Coderre, a civilian adviser to Marine officials.

The 15,000-troop NATO operation was named Mushtarak, or "together," perhaps to highlight that NATO and Afghan forces were determined to work closely to restore stability to Afghanistan.

Whether the apparent early progress can translate into a more permanent end to the insurgency may depend on the government's ability to ensure long-term political and economic stability.

Even if NATO deals a heavy blow to the Taliban in Helmand, militants on the U.S. hit list operate from other sanctuaries inside Pakistan or close to the border.

U.S.-allied Pakistan is reluctant to pursue them as it sees these groups as assets to counter the influence of rival India in Afghanistan.

Decades ago, the Marjah area was home to an Afghan-U.S. development project. Its canals, which criss-cross lush farmland, were built by the Americans.