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Taliban Resistance Stiffens in Marjah

U.S. Marines pummeled insurgents with mortars, sniper fire and missiles as fighting intensified Thursday in two areas of the Taliban southern stronghold of Marjah, where U.S. and Afghan forces are facing stubborn resistance in an operation now in its sixth day.

Marines traded machine-gun fire after coming under attack by insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades. One Marine company attacked Taliban positions surrounding them at dawn.

Four NATO servicemembers died in the fighting Thursday. NATO said Thursday night that three were killed in two different roadside bomb attacks and a fourth died as a result of small-arms fire.

CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark, reporting from the front, said she could hear single-shot sniper rounds on top of the machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades as the Marine's Lima company engaged militants in an intense firefight.

"That's pretty typical of when the Taliban decides to go toe to toe with the military … They throw everything they have into the fight."

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The Taliban have also littered the area with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and homemade bombs Clark reports.

"Yesterday our convoy hit one and just moments ago on the same main bit of road, another convoy hit an IED," she told CBS' "The Early Show" by phone.

A Marine spokesman described the resistance facing Marines and Afghan troops as "stiff" in different parts of town.

"We're seeing more fortified positions. They're standing their ground, essentially," Lt. Josh Diddams said Thursday. "You don't know where you're going to get a little pop up of insurgents who are going to stay and fight."

The fighting in Marjah has followed a similar pattern over the past few days: relatively light in the morning with sniper fire intensifying through midday before subsiding at nightfall.

More coverage from CBS News Correspondent Mandy Clark:

Marines Reach out to Marjah Population
Marines Drive Into Afghan Stronghold
Marines Engage Taliban on Edge of Marjah
Afghanistan: Life on the Frontline

But there were also pockets of calm. Families trickled back and shops reopened in a northern part of town as a small measure of normalcy returned to parts of Marjah that are under Afghan and NATO control.

Their donkeys laden down with their belongings, several families could be seen coming back to their homes in a sign that some civilians believed the fighting is over in zones secured by NATO troops.

Several storekeepers reopened their shops in the bullet-riddled northern bazaar in the northern part of town, as customers lined up to buy goods for the first time in nearly a week.

And even though U.S. and Afghan forces have replaced the Taliban's white flag with Afghanistan's official green and red banner, many Marjah residents remain skeptical that the Afghan government will be an improvement over the militants.

For many, Taliban rule hasn't been all that bad. Plenty of Afghans have made a living off the opium trade, which also funds the insurgency. While some residents greet NATO forces with tea, others just want the troops to clear their streets of explosives and leave.

No one here needs liberating, they say.

"The Taliban didn't create any problems for people. Every Thursday there was a court session, and if someone had a problem, he would go in front of the Taliban mullah who was the judge," said Samad Khan, a 55-year-old poppy farmer in the village of Saipo on the outskirts of Marjah. The Islamist militant group levied a 10 percent yearly tax on his poppy crop, and let him be.

The Marjah offensive is the largest operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a test of President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.

Following Thursday's deaths, nine NATO service members and one Afghan soldier have been killed since the attack on Marjah, the hub of the Taliban's southern logistics and drug-smuggling network, began Saturday. About 40 insurgents have been killed, Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal said.

NATO had previously reported six deaths, but said Thursday that one death had mistakenly been reported twice. Once the town of 80,000 people is secure, NATO plans to rush in civil administrators to revive schools, health clinics and electricity in hopes of winning public support to discourage the Taliban from returning.

But in a sign of the difficulty that NATO faces in trying to reverse the rise of militants, eight members of the Afghan National Police on Wednesday night defected to the Taliban, a police official said Thursday

Eight policemen in Wardak province's Chak district abandoned their posts and joined with Taliban militants in the area late Wednesday, said Mirza Khan, deputy provincial police chief. Khan said one of the policemen had previous ties with the Taliban. The incident is under investigation.

A Taliban spokesman called The Associated Press to confirm the defection.

"These policemen came on their own and told us they want to join with the Taliban," Zabiullah Mujahid said. "Now they are with us."

He said they came with their weapons and ammunition. Mujahid said more than 20 police switched over, but the group commonly gives inflated numbers.

As Marines and Afghan soldiers press their offensive in Marjah, they have been forced to hold their fire because insurgents are shooting from inside or next to mud-walled compounds where civilians are present - and restraint slows their advance.

Brig. Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, the brigade commander of Afghan troops in Marjah, said in some cases women and children may have been ordered to stand on a roof or in a window of buildings where Taliban fighters are shooting.

NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have died.

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