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Marines in action in Afghanistan

U.S. Marines relax against their full battle gear on the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu on Sunday.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Marine contingent in Afghanistan will be used to help hunt Taliban and al Qaeda forces on the move around Kandahar, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday.

About 500 of an expected 1,000-plus Marines landed south of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on Sunday. They were quickly in action, with the Pentagon confirming reports Monday afternoon that U.S. helicopter gunships attacked an armored column near the airstrip they control.

"They are not an occupying force," Rumsfeld said. "Their purpose is to establish a forward base of operations to help pressure the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, to prevent Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists from moving freely about the country."

Rumsfeld said the base they have established could be used for humanitarian operations or for special operations troops, but won't necessarily be used to put more U.S. ground troops into Afghanistan.

The Marine force includes members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit of Camp Pendleton, California, aboard the Amphibious Assault Ship USS Peleliu; and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, aboard the USS Bataan. Both ships are stationed in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Pakistan.

CNN's Donna Kelley and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd talk about the support Marines will have (November 26)

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Gallery: U.S. special forces in Afghanistan 
Special Operations Forces 

Rumsfeld said the Marines went into Afghanistan at the request of Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in southwest Asia. Rumsfeld said U.S. special operations troops have been working in the area for some time, trying to intercept al Qaeda and Taliban forces on the move.

Franks decided "it would be helpful to have a base there from which a variety of things can be done, rather than having people in and out of a special operations nature," Rumsfeld said.

The move will put increasing pressure of the Taliban and al Qaeda, the terrorist organization U.S. officials blame for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

As the Marines worked to establish a base south of Kandahar, U.S. warplanes launched the most intensive raids on the city in weeks, according to reports from the ground. Heavy fighting around the city continued early Monday, but it could not be determined who was participating.

The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance has said it is moving south from Herat toward Kandahar, the Taliban's political and spiritual base, while elements of Afghanistan's Pashtun tribes have threatened to move on Kandahar if Taliban leader Mohammed Omar does not relinquish control of the city.

Washington has put a $25-million price on the head of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and U.S. airstrikes over the weekend concentrated largely on cave and tunnel complexes in Afghanistan believed to be used by Taliban and al Qaeda troops, Myers said.

After seven weeks of U.S.-led bombardment and sweeping recent advances by Northern Alliance forces, U.S. officials estimate the Taliban control less than a third of the country. But Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that "a substantial amount of time" remained before U.S. forces could declare victory.

Myers said Kandahar is "the last bastion, we think, of Taliban resistance," but he predicted the city would not fall easily.

"We think they'll dig in and fight and fight, perhaps to the end," Myers said.


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