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Marines could move against Kandahar

SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- U.S. Marines and Afghan opposition groups were preparing Sunday for a possible final assault on the remaining Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, with the number of U.S. attack and support helicopters on the ground nearly doubling overnight.

Maj. James "Bo" Higgins, an intelligence officer with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said the military campaign for Kandahar had reached "a culmination point."

Higgins said no decision had been taken to commit U.S. Marines to the coming battle for Kandahar, but he said several forces were in play.

Afghan opposition forces continued to move toward Kandahar from the north and southeast, with the number of U.S. Marines and other coalition forces building at a desert base southwest of Kandahar.

CNN's Walter Rodgers has more on the preparation of U.S. Marines in Afghanistan (December 2)

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"In every way, the Taliban is looking at a lot of pressure, kind of like a snake squeezing in on them," Higgins said. "We hope to be able to get them out of there in the pretty near future."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday that U.S. forces are "entering a very dangerous aspect of this conflict."

"It is a confused situation in the country," Rumsfeld told NBC's "Meet the Press." "The amount of real estate they control is continually reduced. The noose is tightening, but the remaining task is a particularly dirty and unpleasant one."

Rumsfeld said Pashtun tribal leaders are prepared to move against Kandahar, but "It will take some assistance from the air."

"The hope is they will surrender and save the city, and save their own lives," he said. He added, "If they donít surrender, they are going to be killed."

As in the northern city of Konduz, the Taliban's Afghan fighters are backed up by Arab, Pakistani and Chechen volunterrs who could resist until the end, Rumsfeld said. "They tended to be the most determined and the hardest fighters," he said. In addition to the U.S. contingent, Pentagon officials said Sunday that a small number of British, German and Australian troops were in southern Afghanistan to coordinate with the Marines.

Squads of Marines and Navy construction units were fortifying the base Saturday, 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.

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.

CNN Correspondents Walter Rodgers and Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.


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