Fighting With Taliban Eases in Marja Offensive

U.S. encouraged by fighting ability of Afghan government forces.

MARJA, Afghanistan, Feb. 16, 2010— -- The fight for Taliban's former stronghold Marja eased today as the Taliban resistance became more sporadic and less frequent.

"In the next several days we'll achieve our objectives and have full control of the city," said Lt.Col. Mark Dietz, Executive Officer for Regimental Combat Team 7. "The city is completely surrounded. We've seized key locations within the city bazaars, governance centers, key points in and out of the cities across the canals."

Capt. Abraham Sipe, Public Affairs Officer for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said, "From day three to day four we've seen insurgent resistance become much less organized." Sipe said Marines across the entire battle space were seeing a decrease in enemy contact.

On the fourth day of the Marja offensive, gun battles occasionally erupted in the center of the city and artillery strikes, at times heavy, could be heard from the northwest edge.

While on patrol Marines of the 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion watched the Afghan military scour a neighborhood for possible Taliban insurgents who may have been trying to escape the city.

First Sgt. Damien DeMalteris, a 15-year veteran, looked things over through his rifle scope, and surmised that insurgents may be on the run after clearing operations farther north in the city flushed them out.

"What might be happening is that [Marines and Afghan soldiers] are clearing certain portions [and insurgents] are moving out of those portions, out of those areas that we've cleared, so they have to find different spots to occupy" said DeMalteris.

Perhaps the best news for U.S. military commanders is that the Afghan Army is stepping up to the task of taking on insurgents. Several of the biggest firefights and operations have involved Afghans. At the encampment here in the southern end of Marja the 300 men of the Afghan Kandak, or battalion, have refused offers of help from U.S. Marines as they've fanned out across the southern portion of the city.

Afghanistan Offensive: 'There Is Still Fighting'

"There is still fighting," a village elder told ABC News during a phone call from inside the city. "There are civilian bodies still on the street." ABC News could not independently verify this information, but there have been confirmed reports of civilian casualties since the operation began.

Earlier in the assault, on Sunday, 12 civilians, including six children, were killed in an artillery strike and the military announced Monday that three more civilians were killed accidentally during the assault on Marja.

One man was shot when he was inside a building that the Taliban was using to fire on Afghan and allied soldiers Sunday. He later died at a medical center.

Two other civilians died on Sunday and Monday when they ignored or didn't understand warnings, including flares and warning shots, to stay away from American posts. Fearing they were suicide bombers, the men were shot when they continued to advance. One man even began running towards the Americans, a NATO statement said.

The international forces, mindful of the potential damage a high civilian death toll could bring to the outcome of Operation Moshtarak, say they are doing everything they can to avoid such a thing.

Though major fighting may end soon, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said it may be a month or more before the entire battle space is cleared of insurgents or enemy threats. The area for Operation Moshtarak, roughly 15 miles by 18 miles (25 km by 30km), extends well beyond the city of Marja into the Nad-e Ali district, much of it farmland.

As Marines and Afghan forces tighten their grip on the city there is a possibility, maybe expectation, that insurgents will regroup and launch a counterattack. It is at that point international forces here could finally break the back of the Taliban in Marja.

Mike Gudgell and Zoe Magee contributed to this report.