| MARJAH, Afghanistan
MARJAH, Afghanistan Marines spearheaded one of NATO's biggest offensives against the Taliban in Afghanistan on Saturday, in an early test of President Barack Obama's troop surge policy.
Marines in helicopters landed in Marjah district, the last big Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, in the first hours of a NATO campaign to impose government control on rebel-held areas before U.S. forces start a planned 2011 drawdown.
They fired at least four rockets at militants who attacked from compounds near the bazaar in Marjah town. Hours later, the area was still gripped by the firefight.
There was one Marine casualty in the unit in which a Reuters correspondent was embedded. In their house nearby, a family huddled in one room, laundry flapping on the line outside.
"We are currently moving to seize our objective. We have been in contact for five hours from the southwest, north and east and we are moving to push to finish securing the areas of insurgents still," Lieutenant Mark Greenlief told Reuters.
The Marines' first objective was to take over the town center, a large cluster of dwellings, and they called in two Harrier jets which flew over a Taliban position at the edge of the town center and fired on the militants with machineguns.
Like civilians in the district of up to 100,000 people, the U.S., British and Afghan troops risk being blown up by booby traps the Taliban are believed to have rigged in the hundreds to try to slow the advance.
A local Taliban commander, Qari Fazluddin, told Reuters earlier about 2,000 fighters were ready to fight.
Also in southern Afghanistan, five NATO troops, including three Americans, died after roadside bomb strikes, and a shooting in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, NATO said in a statement.
It was not clear whether they were killed during the offensive but the violence illustrated how vulnerable they still were after eight years of fighting the Taliban.
Helmand task force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield said a British solider was killed in an explosion while on vehicle patrol during the operation. It was not clear whether the solider was one of the five.
15,000 TROOPS IN OPERATION
NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy emphasizes seizing population centers and avoiding combat in built-up areas whenever possible.
McChrystal has stressed precautions to avoid killing civilians, and the number of civilians killed by NATO troops has declined since he took command in mid-2009.
Heavy casualties may ruin the government's chance of gaining more support from Afghans. NATO forces advised civilians not to leave their homes. Some have already fled Marjah.
"The international forces must adopt certain procedures and mechanisms during operation in Marjah to protect civilians," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement.
In Marjah, resident Abdel Aziz, 16, told the Marines through a translator, "All the walls between the streets and houses are surrounded by bombs. Most people have gone to Lashkar Gah. That's where we want to go today."
An elderly neighbor emerged from her house and asked Marines not to fire at it. "This is just my house," she said.
After helicopters began ferrying U.S. Marines into Marjah, British troops flew into the northern part of Nad Ali district, and tanks and combat engineering units followed.
"The first phase of the operation is proceeding very successfully. The Taliban have heavily booby-trapped the area, but there has not been any fierce fighting yet," Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal told a news conference.
"We have seized 11 key locations in the district and the resistance from the insurgents has been subdued."
The 15,000-troop operation was named Mushtarak, or "together," perhaps to highlight that NATO and Afghan forces were determined to work closely to restore stability to Afghanistan.
Whether the apparent early success can translate into a more permanent end to the insurgency may depend on the government's ability to ensure long-term political and economic stability.
"Our aim is not the elimination of the insurgents, the goal is developing the influence of central government, safeguarding the civilians and providing long-term security and stability," Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters in Kabul.
Marjah has long been a breeding ground for insurgents and lucrative opium poppy cultivation, which Western countries say funds the insurgency.
Even if NATO deals a heavy blow to the Taliban in Helmand, militants on the U.S. hit list operate from other sanctuaries inside Pakistan or close to the border.
U.S.-allied Pakistan is reluctant to pursue them as it sees these groups as assets to counter the influence of rival India in Afghanistan.
Decades ago, the Marjah area was home to an Afghan-U.S. development project. Its canals, which criss-cross lush farmland, were built by the Americans.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Michael Georgy and Bryson Hull; Editing by Louise Ireland)