MARJAH, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents tried to overrun a U.S. Marine outpost with a combination of rocket-propelled grenades and homicide bombers in a brazen attack just after sundown on Sunday.
The Marines and Afghan soldiers fended off the assault, shooting the homicide attackers before they had a chance to detonate their weapons.
The attack took place on the second day of a major offensive to wrest control of this town of 75,000 people from the Taliban insurgents who have dominated it for years.
Also on Sunday, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said that coalition rockets missed their intended target and killed 12 Afghan civilians.
The Marines and Afghan soldiers landed by helicopter on the first day of the offensive and set up camp at the Koru Chareh bazaar, a central commercial district in Marjah. On Sunday, the troops raised the Afghan flag above the bazaar to send the message that the town was gradually reverting to Kabul's control after years of being ruled by the Taliban.
Around 7 p.m., however, insurgents launched a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades at the entrance to the outpost. Three men then rushed toward the opening, but the Marines killed them by tossing a volley of hand grenades before they were able to set off their explosives, according to Lt. Col. Calvin Worth, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
"It's obvious the enemy is trying last-ditch efforts," said Lt. Col. Worth, whose 1,500-strong battalion is spearheading the Marjah offensive. His Company B was the target of Sunday's attack.
Lt. Col. Worth was unsure if there were more fighters waiting to assault the Marine position had the suicide bombers succeeded in getting inside. No Marines or Afghan servicemen were reported injured in the attack.
The insurgent counterattack came as the Marines and Afghan troops continued a slow push to expand the areas of Marjah under their control. They moved at a deliberate pace, fending off guerrilla-style ambushes and negotiating an array of homemade explosives. Clearing a mile of road from the edge of town to the Loy Chareh bazaar, Marine engineers found and destroyed over a score of such devices.
At one point Sunday, a Marine platoon was briefly stymied by a 10-foot mud-brick wall that intelligence sources reported had been booby-trapped with as many as 70 bombs set to explode at the slightest pressure. In the end, the Marines chose to go around it instead of attempting to detonate the bombs.
A favorite insurgent tactic has been to attack the troops in places where they would naturally seek cover in a building or position seeded with hidden explosives triggered by a touch or footfall. The battalion has lost two men to such bombs in recent weeks. To avoid such traps in Marjah, the troops chose to advance across open areas, with no obvious bottlenecks, preferring to take their chances in direct combat.
"I just want him to feel like he's overwhelmed with troops," Lt. Col. Worth said of the Taliban fighter.
Marines from the battalion's Company C fought a series of small engagements Sunday as they crossed muddy fields green with young opium poppies and low alfalfa. They began the day at the key Wakir Wazil intersection and linked up with Company A, which had landed by helicopter near the Loy Chareh bazaar, in the center of the city.
In one such fight, the Marines waded across a thigh-deep irrigation canal and immediately came under fire from both sides of the waterway, including a mud-walled compound about 300 yards away on the near side. The insurgents opened up with several bursts of machine-gun fire, sending the troops sprinting for cover along a thin green treeline and in a patch of feathery weeds and thorny scrub.
The Marines and Afghan soldiers rained gunfire and rockets into the compound, ending the engagement with a barrage of mortar rounds that sent columns of fire and smoke into the air. The troops decided against searching the buildings because of the booby-trap danger and left the area unsure whether they had killed any Taliban.
In another firefight, the troops saw three insurgents fall to coalition gunfire, a typical toll, the Marines believe, for a firefight.
Marjah is one of the last insurgent-held towns in the strategically important central Helmand River valley of southern Afghanistan. The town has been off-limits to Afghan officials and coalition troops for years.
The two-day-old offensive, the core of a wider U.S.-British-Afghan campaign to secure the Nad-e-Ali district that contains Marjah, is designed to assert the Kabul government's authority in restive Helmand province. Commanders hope to establish enough security in coming days to allow a new civilian administrator to enter Marjah and set up shop at the old district center—a ruined police station.
Helmand province is known as the world capital of opium-poppy production, and the Afghan government says part of reasserting its authority means seizing illegal drugs found as the offensive progresses.
The Marines found several jugs of raw and semiprocessed opium buried in the dirt courtyard of a compound they seized as a base in the center of Marjah. The drugs would be worth roughly $4 million in the U.S. in their current state, and perhaps $30 million if refined into high-grade white heroin, according to a South Carolina police detective accompanying the Marines. The troops plan to turn the drugs over to Afghan counternarcotics officials.
Most Marjah residents have remained in town, despite months of coalition warnings that an offensive was in the offing. Their presence highlighted the difficulty of fighting a battle to win the allegiance of the public.
On Sunday, Marines shot and killed an unarmed man who approached a coalition position and ignored repeated warnings, including warning shots, according to the Marines.
Even a minor incident underscored the potential fragility of the political side of the offensive. On Sunday, one of the troops shot a farmer's dog that was acting aggressively towards a military bomb-sniffing Labrador.
Lt. Col. Worth apologized, although the farmer, Jawad Wardak, seemed nonplussed. "It would have been better if you hadn't shot my dog," Mr. Wardak said. "But it's OK that you did."
One of the Afghan soldiers then asked Mr. Wardak for food. The colonel interjected that the troops brought their own meals and did not want to take things from the locals. "That's not why we're here," he said.
Mr. Wardak, however, gave the Afghan soldiers some flatbread. He asked permission to send his nephews to harvest some alfalfa from his fields; Lt. Col. Worth gave his assent.
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