Marines in Marja focus on sniper threat

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

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, U.S. Marines took aim Friday at the threat posed by insurgent snipers.

Surprisingly accurate fire by Taliban marksmen, together with intricate webs of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, has slowed the progress of the offensive, now in its seventh day. Commanders say key goals are being met, but acknowledge that clearing operations will probably take weeks.

Amid what a military statement described as “determined pockets of resistance” by insurgents in and around the town, six service members from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force were killed Thursday by explosions and small-arms fire. That doubled the coalition death toll for the offensive so far, bringing it to 11 Western troops and one Afghan soldier.

Taliban sharpshooters had long had a reputation for being anything but. But coalition field officers say they have been encountering snipers considerably more skilled than those seen previously -- 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 assault began Saturday with troops being airlifted over Taliban front lines and miles of minefields and dropped inside the town. On Friday, that tactic was repeated, on a much smaller scale, when elite Marine reconnaissance squads were airdropped into areas behind Taliban lines where snipers were known to be operating, the Associated Press reported.

Scattered clashes, mainly small-scale firefights and ambushes, continued throughout the day Friday, the military said.

Coalition officials hope attention can be shifted soon from the military phase of the operation 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 have begun. Military officials have also been attending shuras, traditional tribal gatherings where local decision making occurs.