BARCHA, Afghanistan (Reuters) - It took two days to advance just 4 km (2.5 miles) on a road laced with bombs.
Insurgents ambushed the convoy, blasting a heavily armored vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade and wounding several of the men inside while a helicopter gunship fired machinegun bursts to protect them.
Finally, more than 200 men of 2nd battalion 8th Marines arrived late on Friday to set up a base in a village that had been a Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province, the most violent part of Afghanistan.
The perilous advance shows the difficulty U.S. forces face in extending their control over Taliban-held parts of the country at a time when President Barack Obama is considering a request for 40,000 more troops from his battlefield commander.
This year has already become the deadliest for Western troops of the 8-year-old war, with more than 400 killed, more than in the entire period from 2001-2005. By far the deadliest weapon employed by the insurgents are homemade bombs.
The Marines, part of a force of 10,000 that Obama sent to Afghanistan earlier this year, pushed forward along a dirt road, sandwiched between two canals branching off the Helmand River and arrived at the village of Barcha to establish a base.
En route, about 24 bombs were intercepted by a team of engineers, ahead of a convoy of 25 armored vehicles and 80 men on foot, crawling at speeds averaging 200 meters (650 ft) an hour.
“It made (the Marines) move very slowly and methodically -- it does nothing but slow down the operation,” said Captain Matt Martin, company commander for Golf company, one of four companies involved in the operation.
Step-by-step the team paced carefully, sweeping the dirt track with metal detectors for bombs, which they discovered in many sizes and forms.
Some were covered with pressure plates to trigger them with a wrong step; one contained 60 pounds (27 kg) of homemade ammonium oxide-based explosive bound with two mortars.
Every 45 minutes or so, a plume of dust puffed out onto the horizon, with a loud thud when the Marines fired rockets on the bombs to detonate them.
The quantity of bombs intercepted forced the convoy to stay overnight in their vehicles on the road after the first day.
By dawn the convoy started moving again in earnest as three more bombs were found and detonated. Then came the ambush -- they were hit by insurgent gunfire in the late afternoon.
One heavily armored bomb-resistant vehicle was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, wounding several Marines inside.
“Everyone was on the alert, it lasted about half an hour before Fox company repelled the attack,” Martin said.
Helicopters fired from above, while gunners opened fire from nearby vehicles. No Marines were killed. They would have to wait until daylight for a recovery mission to determine if they had killed any Taliban.
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has called for a counter-insurgency strategy that requires his troops to press into populated areas and hold them so that government institutions can be set up.
It is intensive work for the troops on the ground. The 10,000-strong Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand province launched the war’s biggest operation in July, seizing much of the lower Helmand River valley in one night.
Since then, they have continued to press into Taliban-held areas. The province is the economic heartland of the Taliban, producing around half of the world’s illegal opium crop, which U.S. forces say funds the insurgency.
Captain Junwei Sun, commander of Foxtrot company, had expected the short but perilous drive out of his commanding base in the village of Hassan Abad to be stymied by roadside bombs.
Intercepted Taliban chatter on the radio at Sun’s base indicated the insurgents were expecting something.
“They were saying ‘get everyone you got, all your small arms, something’s going to happen,’” Sun warned his Marines earlier at their base.
The Marines finally moved into their new base, a compound in the village of Barcha, along what they call the “snake’s neck,” a narrow strip of canals and farmland that extends south from the “snake’s head,” a bulge of fertile land at a river crossing where they hold the main center of the Garmsir district.
About 10 km (6 miles) further south is the southernmost U.S. unit in Helmand. The strip along the river in between is Taliban country, a vacuum for Western troops.
Twenty-five Afghan soldiers cleared the compound for the Marines to move in and occupy its dilapidated mud enclosures, the first Western forces in the area since the Taliban were pushed out of Kabul in 2001.
Back along the road, the wreckage of the armored vehicle struck in the advance continued to burn into the night.
Editing by Peter Graff and Myra MacDonald
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