(For full coverage on Afghanistan, double click on [ID:nAFPAK])
* Roadside bomb kills two U.S. soldiers
* U.S. military changes earlier report that four died
* British PM phones Afghan leader, vows to stay the course
(Revises number of deaths based on later U.S. statement)
By Paul Tait
KABUL, July 12 (Reuters) - A roadside bomb killed two U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said on Sunday, the latest deaths in an escalation of violence that has put pressure on coalition leaders over their war strategy.
Thousands of U.S. Marines and hundreds of British soldiers have been fighting major new offensives in the past 10 days in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and Afghanistan’s biggest producer of the opium that funds the insurgency.
The assault by U.S. Marines, Operation Strike of the Sword, is the first major operation under U.S. President Barack Obama’s new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and stabilise Afghanistan, which holds a presidential election on Aug. 20.
It was launched with insurgency violence at its highest since the Taliban’s austere Islamist government was ousted in 2001 by U.S. and Afghan forces for failing to hand over al Qaeda leaders wanted over the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Violence has flared again throughout Afghanistan since the operation began on July 2, with attacks in traditional Taliban strongholds in the south and east as well as in relatively more peaceful areas in the north and west.
The Taliban backlash has put pressure on leaders in Washington and London, who say U.S. and other NATO-led troops have pushed back Taliban insurgents but that a lot of tough fighting remains to be done during the summer.
Obama told Sky News on Saturday the United States and its allies would have to evaluate Afghanistan again after next month’s election to see what other military or development steps might be needed. [ID:nLAL002272]
THIRD SOLDIER DIES
The latest two soldiers to be killed by a roadside bomb died in Helmand on Saturday, a U.S. military spokeswoman said.
“The one attack in Helmand killed two Marines,” said spokeswoman Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker.
The U.S. military earlier reported four Marines were killed but Sidenstricker said the same incident in Helmand had been reported twice to officials in Kabul.
A third soldier serving with NATO-led forces in the south died on Friday from wounds received in June, the alliance said in a statement issued on Sunday. No other details were available.
Washington is pouring in extra troops under Obama’s new strategy, with numbers set to more than double to 68,000 by the end of the year. About 90,000 U.S. and NATO troops are already serving in Afghanistan.
British troops mounting their biggest operation of the campaign in Afghanistan have also suffered under the Taliban backlash, with 15 confirmed killed in a 10-day period, including five in two roadside bomb blasts on Friday.
Taliban casualty figures were not immediately available.
Britain has now lost 184 soldiers in Afghanistan since it joined the U.S.-led war, more than the 179 killed in Iraq since 2003, putting the Afghan campaign sharply into focus at home.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday, the presidential palace said in a statement, and Karzai expressed his sympathy over the British casualties.
Brown told Karzai Britain would continue to help the Afghan people in the fight against terrorism and in building up Afghan security forces, the palace said. U.S. commanders have complained of a lack of Afghan troops in the latest operations.
One of the main goals of the new operation is to capture ground from the Taliban and hold it, something overstretched British-led NATO troops have so far been unable to achieve. It is also seeking to win over Afghans from the insurgency.
With the latest deaths dominating headlines, finance minister Alistair Darling said on Saturday British troops would get whatever equipment they needed despite a ballooning deficit putting pressure on the defence budget.
The media, military experts and opposition politicians have questioned the government’s strategy and its commitment to equipping troops properly. Britain has sent 700 extra troops for the presidential election period, taking its force to 9,000.
In Helmand, the main British military hospital on Friday coped with the biggest load of battlefield casualties suffered in a day since the Falklands campaign in the 1980s.
But politicians and military leaders have warned often in recent weeks that a bloody summer of fighting lay ahead.