World and Nation

Militants defy allies on third day of fierce combat

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Ten minutes after walking out of the small outpost on Monday morning, the Marines of K Company were ambushed again.

Taliban fighters waited until the patrol of perhaps 25 Marines had entirely entered the barren and flat open ground between two mud-walled compounds. Then they opened fire. Bullets twanged past in the air and thumped among the Marines in the dirt.

There was no cover. The Marines dropped, fired, then bounded to their feet, running through muddy gunk.

“Break to your left!” one of them shouted. “Go!”

So began the third day for a rifle company alone in northern Marjah, where four platoons have been in near constant skirmishing with the Taliban since Saturday. They have faced a mix of ambushes and sustained engagements along with intermittent sniper fire. Two Marines were shot and wounded Saturday. Two Afghan soldiers who patrol with them were gravely wounded Monday, one shot in the face, the other through the neck.

The Afghan government on Monday tried to portray the battle for the Taliban stronghold as all but over, with the resistance light and the Taliban fleeing, a characterization that bore little resemblance to the facts on the ground here in northern Marjah. The U.S. military offered a more nuanced view of the fighting, but one that still focused on the gains.

The roads into Marjah have been only partially cleared, and this company, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, is isolated and surrounded by Taliban.

After two days of fighting, the company was running out of ammunition; the first patrol that was ambushed on Monday was moving to meet another platoon that was carrying fresh ammunition and water from a 5 a.m. helicopter drop.

The patrol members dashed out of the ambush and reloaded — stripping cartridges from their packaging and pushing them in the magazines one by one — then set off again. Within minutes they were under fire again, and fighting anew.

The day proved to be a long one for a company that had barely slept in 72 hours and started the morning parched for water.

Company K had been ordered to seize a bridge and a bazaar a little over a mile to the northeast of the landing zone where helicopters had inserted the Marines shortly after midnight Saturday morning. The original plan had been to take the bridge by Saturday evening.

But the fighting had been so intense by Saturday afternoon that the company consolidated on the ground that it held. On Sunday it developed into a long-running battle, with several episodes of intense exchanges of fire and aircraft and rockets firing to keep the Taliban back. The company again stopped short of the bridge, and called for resupply of water, food and ammunition.

On Monday, it fought through the first ambushes and spent the day clearing buildings on the way to the bridge.