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U.S. forces prepare for possible Kandahar assault

SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- U.S. aircraft, military personnel and supplies poured into a primitive desert airfield throughout the weekend as U.S. Marines and Afghan opposition groups prepared for a possible final assault on Kandahar.

On Monday, CNN's Walter Rodgers said he could hear additional aircraft landing overnight. He also said the number of U.S. attack and support helicopters on the ground nearly doubled in the overnight hours of Saturday night into Sunday morning.

A U.S. intelligence officer with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit said the military campaign for Kandahar had reached "a culmination point." Maj. James "Bo" Higgins said Sunday that no decision had been taken to commit U.S. Marines to the coming battle for Kandahar, but he said a lot of forces were in play.

In addition to Marines, who seized the forward base around the airfield a week ago, the force on the ground near Kandahar now also includes Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. Military officers from Britain, Australia and Germany are also on the ground.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre reports U.S. Marines are preparing to conduct their first combat operations (December 3)

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Four Afghan factions have agreed to a power-sharing plan, but hammering out the details could prove difficult. CNN's Jim Bittermann reports (December 3)

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The U.S. presence was visible at many levels.

With little threat from Taliban or al Qaeda forces remaining, four U.S. Navy warplanes could be seen flanking an aerial tanker, refueling over southern Afghanistan on Monday morning. The contrails of bombing missions crisscrossed the sky.

The Marines have expanded their patrols across southern Afghanistan, both from the air and from armored convoys on the ground. While more activity has been spotted on the ground, no new attacks have been reported since a strike on a Taliban military convoy last Monday.

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 here. U.S. troops in full battle gear were supported by armored personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters.

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

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 last Monday, when Marine helicopters guided Navy jets to attack a nearby military convoy of about 15 Soviet-vintage vehicles.

Pressure also was being applied through continued bombing around Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday. The area lies about 35 miles south of Jalalabad near the Pakistan border, and is an area of extensive cave and tunnel complexes. U.S. officials say the area is a Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold.

Over the past few days, local leaders have sent emissaries to tribal elders in the Tora Bora region in an effort to get the fighters there to give themselves up or simply leave the area. A response was expected by Monday.

If the fighters do not agree to the request, the local leaders are prepared to launch a military assault in the area and would seek U.S. military support for it, they said.

'The noose is tightening'

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 that "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 don't 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 volunteers who could resist until the end, Rumsfeld said. "They tended to be the most determined and the hardest fighters," he said.


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