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Marines dig in near Kandahar

SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- A battalion-size force of U.S. Marines have dug in at a desert airstrip near Kandahar, quietly awaiting orders that one Marine 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 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 in the region, officials said.

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

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"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 on a dry lake bed surrounded by desert. Reinforcements of weapons, supplies and troops will come, including international forces from other members of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.

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

Squads of Marines and Navy construction units were fortifying the base and detonating unexploded ordnance dating back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. U.S. forces also have 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 about 15 Soviet-vintage vehicles.

Despite speedy, convincing gains by opposition forces across Afghanistan, "small pockets" of Taliban fighters still endanger Americans and others fighting them, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

"It's entirely possible there are going to be more Americans killed," Rumsfeld said in an interview to be broadcast Saturday on CNN's "Novak, Hunt and Shields."

"A good many of these people surrendered and turned in their arms and then left, and a number of other Taliban ended up just fading into the villages in the mountains, and they're still up there and they're still armed," Rumsfeld said. "So I don't think that simply because there are no pitched battles going on at the present time, that it's over."

CNN Correspondent Walter Rodgers contributed to this report.


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