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Marines dig in near Kandahar, awaiting orders

SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- A battalion-sized force of U.S. Marines dug in at a desert airstrip near Kandahar on Friday, quietly awaiting orders that one Marines spokesman pledged would be accomplished "with a vengeance."

Stationed in Navy ships off Pakistan's coast less than a week ago, members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were ferried to their southern Afghan base by U.S. aircraft beginning on Sunday. They quickly carried out their first mission -- establishing a forward operating base inside Afghanistan.

With the base and sizable Marine presence, the U.S. military hopes to increase its available firepower beyond what was possible with small special operations units now in the region, officials said.

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While the U.S. military restricted visiting news media from disclosing the exact location and number of Marines, the force is understood to be about the size of a reinforced battalion -- about 1,200 troops.

"Right now, we're awaiting further orders regarding our mission," said Capt. Stewart Upton, a Marine spokesman. "Once we receive those, we will accomplish them with a vengeance."

Air Force C-130 cargo planes and larger C-17 jets continue to land at the base's rudimentary airstrip, located on a dry lake bed and surrounded by desert. The current force will be reinforced by more weapons, supplies and troops -- including international forces from other members of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.

Encircled by a wall with four watch towers, one at each corner, the base contains several barracks and a vehicle maintenance shop. A mosque is also inside the base, although Marines have not entered the building but rather cordoned it off to preserve its religious sanctity.

Squads of Marines and Navy Seabees, armed with anti-tank weapons, mortars and machine guns, are fortifying the base and detonating unexploded ordinance dating back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. U.S. forces have also repaired the airstrip and dug foxholes -- dubbed "fighting holes" by the troops -- around the base's perimeter.

The Marines have had few major tests thus far, as Taliban forces have not attempted to penetrate the base's perimeter, a Marine officer said. The U.S. forces only contact with the Taliban came Monday, when Marine helicopters guided Navy jets to attack a nearby military convoy of approximately 15 Soviet-vintage vehicles.

-- CNN Correspondent Walter Rodgers contributed to this report.


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