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U.S. Troops Launch Major Operation In Southern Afghanistan

U.S. Marines on patrol with Afghan soldiers in Helmand Province in November
KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Marines pressed into a remote Taliban stronghold today with their first major assault in Afghanistan since President Barack Obama earmarked 30,000 more troops to try to turn the tide on the Taliban insurgency.

Operation "Cobra's Anger," which involves 900 U.S. Marines and sailors, British troops, and 150 Afghan soldiers and police, pushed into the Now Zad district of southern Helmand Province, an insurgent stronghold depopulated after years of heavy fighting.

The advancing Marines killed several militants and seized bombs and weapons in the first day of the operation, which begin with an airborne assault on December 4, said Major Bill Pelletier, spokesman for the Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand.

"Among other things found yesterday evening...two or three weapons caches and IED-making materials, mortars, small arms machine guns, and light weapons were seized," he said. "The operation is continuing today in an area that had an enemy presence. We are going to disrupt that presence."

Pelletier said there were no casualties among foreign or Afghan government forces and he could not be specific on the exact number of insurgents killed.

British forces were flanking the Marines to the eastern side of the battle area, a spokesman for the British military in Helmand said, declining to say how many British troops were involved for operational security reasons.

Now Zad has been one of the most bitterly contested districts of Afghanistan's most violent province since British forces first moved into the area in 2006.

Nearly all of its 30,000 residents have fled. A company of U.S. Marines is based in the town but much of the surrounding valley is in ruins, held by Taliban fighters and sown with bombs.

Washington's eight-year war in Afghanistan has reached its deadliest point for U.S. troops this year. More than 300 U.S. troops have been killed so far this year alone, most by insurgent-laid home-made bombs.

The Marines launched the biggest operation of the war in July when 4,000 of them seized the lower Helmand River valley in another part of the province. This week's operation is one of several large offensives they have carried out since then, with units numbering up to 1,000.

The 30,000 additional troops announced by Obama will start arriving in Afghanistan in coming months, joining 68,000 Americans and about 40,000 troops from other NATO countries.

The first contingent of a 9,000-strong Marine Expeditionary Brigade is arriving in Afghanistan in the next two to three weeks, scheduled to replace the Marine brigade now based in Helmand.

The operation comes at a time of waning domestic support for Washington's involvement in Afghanistan as the war enters its ninth year. Several NATO allies have committed to send about 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the alliance said on December 4, although other NATO countries are withdrawing large contingents.

Obama said on December 1 that U.S. forces will begin pulling out of Afghanistan in July 2011. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress this date could change depending on conditions on the ground.