Afghan govt. takes over town of Marjah

CAMP GERONIMO, Afghanistan — The Afghan government laid symbolic claim to the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Thursday with a flag-raising ceremony and the formal installation of a new civilian administration.

Afghan and Western military officials, though, said the campaign to secure the southern Afghanistan town would go on for weeks longer.

As the flag-raising was taking place, scattered clashes between U.S. Marines and insurgents continued, and coalition forces continued the painstaking work of finding and destroying the huge numbers of bombs buried by insurgents.

U.S. Marines and British and Afghan troops launched their assault on the town two weeks ago, on Feb. 13. With 15,000 troops taking part in combat and support operations spread over a wide area, it has been the largest single Western offensive since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban.

At Thursday's ceremony, hundreds of local residents looked on as their red and green national flag was raised. The town's new civilian leader, Haji Zahir, promised to begin restoring basic government services — something Marjah had lacked for at least two years.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the U.S. Marines' commander, attended the ceremony but did not speak. Western military officials said that was a deliberate gesture, meant to emphasize that the massive military offensive was meant to pave the way for Afghans to govern themselves.

A spokesman for the NATO force, Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, told reporters in Kabul that the fight was not over, but coalition troops were shifting from "clear to hold posture" in Nad Ali district, where Marjah is located.

"The operation .. has made a lot of progress since February 13," said Tremblay.

But he said the Taliban maintained a presence in the town, some by disguising themselves as civilians. Others were holding out in fortified bunkers or laying ambushes against the coalition force.

"It is true that some insurgents may have pushed themselves out of the area," Tremblay said, "but some have melted away among the population."

Thirteen Western service members, including at least eight U.S. Marines, have been killed so far in the Marjah campaign, along with three Afghan soldiers.