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Marines Engage Taliban on Edge of Marjah

U.S. Marines at forward positions are continuing their slow, dangerous advance Friday toward the heart of a Taliban-held town in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.

CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark, embedded with a unit of Marines on the frontline (at left), reports that the long-expected operation to force the militants out of Marjah has yet to begin. But the fight isn't waiting.

The Marines came under direct small-arms fire Friday from Taliban militants entrenched on the agricultural town's outskirts.

Clark reports that the ever-changing frontline remains a few miles from the center of Marjah.

Machine gun fire peppered at least one U.S. military vehicle and forced the Marines to seek cover before returning fire. There were no American casualties reported among the unit as of 6 a.m. Eastern time.

At last contact, the unit of Marines with whom Clark is embedded was about to advance forward and try and secure the compound on the town's edge from which the militants were taking potshots.

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U.S. commanders expect to encounter between 400 and 1,000 fighters in Marjah once the offensive begins in earnest, but skirmishes like Friday's, which have gone on for several days, show the Taliban have set up their own positions encircling the town.

On Thursday, U.S. Marines hooked up with Army soldiers on Marjah's outskirts, completely surrounding the town in an attempt to cut off supply and escape routes.

American commanders have said the battle for Marjah — the last Taliban-held town in the strategic opium farming Helmand River Valley — may be the largest offensive of the nine-year war.

The Taliban propaganda machine, however, has dismissed the town as insignificant in the grand scale of the war, with a spokesman claiming online it will be defended, but not a devastating blow if lost to the Americans and their NATO and Afghan allies.

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