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U.S. offensive in Helmand taking pressure off the Canadians in Kandahar

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - U.S. marines clawed their way south along the Helmand River valley over the weekend in an ongoing push that the commander of the battle-hardened assault force hopes is easing the pressure on the Canadians in neighbouring Kandahar.


Sun Jun 1, 12:26 PM
By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

The level of fighting "has stayed fairly consistent" since they began arriving in southern Afghanistan earlier this spring, but "the last three days have probably been the most intense as we move further south," said Col. Pete Petronzio, who leads the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

"My marines are doing a great job."

The buoyant tone is also reflected in British ranks where a senior commander declared Sunday that the Taliban were on the run and "licking their wounds" in Helmand province, long a cauldron of militant activity.

Brig.-Gen. Gordon Messenger told the British media that insurgents had been tactically routed and intelligence estimates suggested they were now retrenching in Farah province, on the northwest border of Helmand.

Canadian commanders were also cautiously optimistic with a report Saturday of the death of a mid-level Taliban group commander - Mullah Tohr Agha - in a combined Canadian-Afghan operation in the troublesome Zhari district last week.

Petronzio also cautioned that his 2,200 troops were still very much in the thick of the fight and the area around Gamsir, where marines have been operating, was still being "cleared" of militants, who have engaged U.S. troops in a series of vicious firefights and laced the area with booby traps and roadside bombs.

He dismissed reports from aid agencies that claimed thousands of people had been displaced by the fighting, saying the marines had noticed some families fleeing north after being driven from their homes by insurgents.

The concentration of force in the winding river valley - a major supply and infiltration route from Pakistan - has given the Canadians the freedom to focus on the most volatile Taliban hotbeds in Kandahar, namely the Zhari and Panjwaii districts west of the provincial capital.

It has also eased pressure on the British further up river, where almost 8,000 troops have fought repeated bloody campaigns over two summers to stamp out militants, particularly around the strategically important Kajaki dam, a semi-active hydro-electric facility.

Petronzio described the marine action as "attempting to put a stopper in the bottle as far south as we can."

It is a messy, dangerous job because Garmsir, where the British were under almost constant fire before the marines arrived, is "an incredibly tough place to be."

Although fighting season is still young, the violence in Kandahar province has appeared lighter than previous years.

"I hope that is a direct positive effect" of the marine presence, Petronzio added. "And I hope with time we will see more direct, larger regional effect than just localized ones in Garmsir."

The 47-year-old marine colonel, who served in Iraq and Kosovo, was effusive in his praise for Canadian troops and was eager to dispel the notion that his unit was there to save to the day for NATO.

"I really strongly believe that we didn't come to anyone's rescue," he told Canadian reporters in a wide-ranging and candid interview.

"We're a bunch of guys that came here to do a job. And as professionals in the profession of arms we are no different than the Canadians, than the Brits, than the Dutch. We just came to help."

The Canadians, he said, were the ones doing the rescuing early in April when a marine convoy struck a huge roadside bomb near Forward Operating Base Wilson in the Zhari district.

Two marines 1st Sgt. Luke Mercardante, 35, and Cpl. Kyle Wilks, 24, were killed and two seriously wounded in the April 15 incident, where Canadian troops rushed to provide assistance and care for the casualties - something Canadian commanders have never discussed.

The marine deployment is scheduled to last seven months in total and Petronzio wouldn't speculate on whether it would be extended.

He said their mission is classic counter-insurgency, which he described as clear, hold and build.

But Petronzio conceded the marines are best suited for the two phases.

"We may not be uniquely suited to the build," he said.

"So there will probably have to be someone who does that for a living, you know, to kind'a come in behind us."