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Biggest Afghanistan Battle Looms

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CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — U.S. troops and their Afghan and NATO allies are planning their biggest joint offensive since the Afghan war's start, targeting a town in the volatile south known as a Taliban stronghold and a hub of their lucrative opium trade, officers said Wednesday.

No date for the start of the offensive has been released for security reasons. But U.S. commanders have said they plan to capture the town of Marjah, 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul, this winter.

It is to be the first major offensive since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and many of the Marines set to participate arrived as part of the surge.

Up to 125,000 people are believed to live in the district around Marjah, an agricultural center in Helmand province surrounded by a maze of irrigation canals built with American aid in the 1950s and 1960s. About 80,000 people live in or around the town itself.

Between 600 and 1,000 Taliban and foreign fighters are thought to operate in the area, U.S. officers say. NATO officials won't say how many NATO and Afghan troops have been earmarked for the offensive, but they are expected to vastly outnumber the Taliban and their allies.

In Kabul, NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay told reporters that the operation will include at least 1,000 Afghan police and thousands of Afghan soldiers as well as thousands of NATO troops. U.S. officers say the offensive will involve the highest number of Afghan forces in any joint operation to date.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi did not specifically mention Marjah, but told reporters in Kabul that a large operation is coming "in the near future" in Helmand. He said it will "separate the local people from the terrorists in the area."

Fighting escalated in Helmand in 2006, and the sprawling southern province was transformed into one of the deadliest parts of the country for NATO forces.

Last spring, thousands of U.S. Marines arrived in the province to reinforce the British military. British and American forces launched twin operations to try to stabilize the area before the August presidential election, in which turnout in Helmand was extremely low.

U.S. officials have spoken publicly about plans to take Marjah in hopes that many civilians will leave the town, along with Taliban fighters who are not deeply committed to the insurgency.

Commanders believe support of the local population is crucial to establishing an Afghan administration as quickly as possible and to help NATO troops detect the numerous improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that they expect to face in Marjah.

Two U.S. service members were killed by a bomb Tuesday in southern Afghanistan, but NATO did not specify the precise location.

Col. George Amland, the deputy commander of Marines in Helmand province, said the Taliban force includes "hundreds of idiots running around Marjah right now waiting to aggregate" and confront the NATO and Afghan troops.

He expects the Taliban ranks will "dwindle very quickly into a very manageable number" by the time the fighting begins.

Amland dismissed most of the Taliban force as just "in the Taliban's employ" and said that local opium poppy growers and opium dealers will abandon the militants quickly.

That leaves the "dyed-in-the-wool Taliban," Amland told reporters in Camp Leatherneck, the main Marine Corps base in southern Afghanistan. He estimates there are "a couple of hundred of those that are rallying the rest of the cause."

The militants are believed to include about 100 to 150 foreign fighters, including Arabs, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Chechens and a few Yemenis, said Maj. Jundish Jang Baz, of the Afghan National Army.

The problem, he added, is that NATO isn't completely sure whether it can rely on all the forces supposed to be on its side. Jang Baz said the locally hired Afghan police were less than reliable.

"We think they're working with al-Qaida in Marjah," Jang Baz said, adding that he expected the Taliban to "scatter like ants."

"The real challenge is to make sure they don't flee with enough weapons to start another fight somewhere else," he said.

Azimi also said an investigation was still under way into a NATO airstrike that killed four Afghan soldiers last week in Wardak province.

The fighting broke out when a joint U.S.-Afghan force came under fire near a remote highway outpost and called in the airstrike. Both sides have said it appeared to be a case of mistaken identity.

The U.S. Army Special Operations Command denied claims by Afghan officials that the troops involved were special forces.

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Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report in Kabul.

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