MARJA, Afghanistan — Marines moving by land from the north linked up Tuesday with U.S. units that have faced nearly constant Taliban attack in the four days since they were dropped by helicopter into this insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
Also Tuesday, U.S. artillery fired nonlethal smoke rounds to disperse Taliban fighters in Marja — the first time cannons have been used in the fight to drive the militants from their logistical and opium poppy-smuggling base. Commanders refused a Marine request to fire deadly high-explosive rounds because the unit on the ground could not be sure civilians weren't at risk.
The linkup between the Marine rifle companies and their Afghan army partners will enable the United States to expand its control in Marja, situated in Helmand province 380 miles southwest of Kabul.
Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines moved through fields of hidden bombs and bobby traps and braved heavy sniper fire to join up with the same battalion's Kilo Company, which was airdropped into the town in the first hours of the operation Saturday.
Lt. Gordon Emmanuel, a platoon commander in Kilo Company, said the Marines landed without encountering Taliban fire but came under sustained attack as they fanned out from the landing zone. "When it is daytime, there is nonstop contact until the sun goes down … every day," he said.
About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the big offensive around Marja, which has an estimated 80,000 inhabitants and was the largest southern town under Taliban control. NATO hopes to rush in aid and public services as soon as the town is secured to try to win the loyalty of the population.
NATO said a service member taking part in the Marja operation was killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday — the third confirmed death among international forces since the attack on the town began. An American and a Briton were killed on Saturday.
NATO did not identify the latest victim by nationality. An Afghan military spokesman, Lt. Mohammad Esah, said Tuesday that one Afghan soldier died in the offensive. But he did not say when.
U.S. officials said Taliban resistance in Marja seemed more disorganized Tuesday than in previous days, when small teams of insurgents swarmed around Marine and Afghan army positions firing rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
"We're not seeing coordinated attacks like we did originally. We're still getting small-arms fire, but it's sporadic, and hit-and-run tactics," said a Marine spokesman, Capt. Abraham Sipe said. "As a whole, while there is still resistance, it is of a disorganized nature."
Nevertheless, Taliban fighters have not given up. Snipers hiding in haystacks in poppy fields fired on Marines and Afghan troops as they swept south.
Insurgents tried but failed to shoot down an Osprey aircraft with rocket-propelled grenades as Cobra attack helicopters fired missiles at Taliban positions, including a machine gun bunker.
Marines and Afghan soldiers continued house-to-house searches, removing bombs and booby-traps as they moved through town. Inside some compounds Tuesday, squads found small doses of heroin, a Taliban photo album with fighters posing with AK-47s, and large propaganda wall paintings of insurgents shooting down helicopters.