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July 18 (Reuters) - July has become the deadliest month for foreign forces in the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan, with casualties climbing after U.S. and British troops mounted major operations in southern Helmand province, the Taliban’s opium-producing heartland.
Some 10,000 U.S. Marines in Helmand are involved in Operation "Strike of the Sword" in the province’s southern half, while a similar-sized British-led task force launched operation "Panther’s Claw" to the north.
Following are five facts about Helmand province.
* Helmand is Afghanistan’s largest province, about 60,000 sq km (23,000 sq m), making it nearly as large as Ireland. It consists of the high mountains of the Hindu Kush in the north and a vast wasteland in the south known as the Desert of Death, providing smuggling routes to the border with Pakistan. Virtually all its population lives along the Helmand River, Afghanistan’s longest, surrounded by canals that irrigate a narrow area of opium and food crops along its banks.
Helmand’s population is mainly made up of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, from which the Taliban movement draws most of its followers.
* There was little international presence in Helmand for years after the Taliban were driven from Kabul in 2001, a vacuum that allowed militants to gradually assume control of the province. Thousands of British troops arrived in the province in 2006 on a NATO mission billed as providing security for reconstruction efforts, but quickly found themselves embroiled in unexpectedly fierce fighting. Since then, British-led NATO troops defended isolated garrisons in district centre towns such as Musa Qala, Sangin, Now Zad and Garmsir, while much of the population of those areas fled to other parts of the province.
* British commanders now acknowledge they never had the troop strength needed to clear Helmand of Taliban fighters and hold it, but they believe new U.S. reinforcements now make that possible.
In the past few months, the Western force in the province has been nearly doubled. About 10,000 U.S. Marines — 8,500 of them newly-arrived — have taken responsibility for the south and west of the province, while 9,000 British troops, with smaller Danish and Estonian contingents, tackle the centre and north.
* Operation "Strike of the Sword" saw 4,000 U.S. Marines seize three mainly Taliban-held districts of the lower Helmand River valley by helicopter and ground assault before dawn on July 2. Simultaneously, Operation "Panther’s Claw" has seen thousands of British troops push steadily through an area north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Taliban fighters have seeded the area with home-made bombs and sniper nests.
Western officials say that before the operations, 40-50 percent of the province’s population lived in areas controlled by the Taliban, but that percentage has since been cut in half.
* Helmand produces more than half of the opium cultivated in Afghanistan, itself the source of about 90 percent of the global supply, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2008 more than 103,000 hectares of poppy were cultivated. The drug crop is closely tied to the insurgency and the Taliban are funded in a large measure by the opium trade.
NATO forces have not engaged in crop eradication for fear of angering local farmers. Programmes to encourage alternative crops such as wheat have so far had little success in the province. (Compiled by Golnar Motevalli and Peter Graff; Editing by Alex Richardson and Paul Tait)