NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan — U.S. and Afghan forces have ringed the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, sealing off escape routes and setting the stage for what is being described as the biggest offensive of the nine-year war.
Taliban defenders repeatedly fired rockets and mortars Thursday at units poised in foxholes along the edge of the town, apparently trying to lure NATO forces into skirmishes before the big attack.
"They're trying to draw us in," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, 30, of Tulsa, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines.
Up to 1,000 militants are believed holed up in Marjah, a key Taliban logistics base and center of the lucrative opium poppy trade. But the biggest threats are likely to be the land mines and bombs hidden in the roads and fields of the farming community, 380 miles southwest of Kabul.
To combat the mines around Marjah, Marines planned to use their new 72-ton Assault Breacher Vehicles, which use metal plows to scoop up hidden bombs or fire rockets to detonate them at a safe distance.
The precise date for the attack has been kept secret. U.S. officials have signaled for weeks they planned to seize Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people in Helmand province and the biggest community in southern Afghanistan under Taliban control.
NATO officials say the goal is to seize the town quickly and re-establish Afghan government authority, bringing public services in hopes of winning support of the townspeople once the Taliban are gone. Hundreds of Afghan soldiers were to join U.S. Marines in the attack to emphasize the Afghan role in the operation.
A Taliban spokesman dismissed the significance of Marjah, saying the NATO operation was "more propaganda than military necessity."
Nevertheless, the spokesman, Mohammed Yusuf, said in a dialogue on the Taliban Web site that the insurgents would strike the attackers with explosives and hit-and-run tactics, according to a summary by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant Internet traffic.
U.S. and Afghan forces have finished their deployment along the main road in and out of Marjah, leaving the Taliban no way out except across bleak, open desert — where they could easily be spotted.