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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bomb Kills at Least 17 in Southern Afghanistan

Bicycle bomb kills 17 in Taliban hotbed, S. Afghanistan

Bomb blast at Southern AfghanistanA bomb concealed on a bicycle killed 8 people and injured 38 Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, as the Pentagon's top military officer said NATO forces hope to reverse the Taliban's momentum in the south with an upcoming offensive in the region's main city.

The bomb went off in the Nahri Sarraj district just north of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, police said. It exploded near people who gathered to receive free vegetable seeds provided by the British government as part of a program to encourage them not to plant opium poppy, provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said.

Kamaluddin, the deputy provincial police chief who uses only one name, originally put the death toll at 17, but said the higher figure had been the result of a miscommunication.

Kamaluddin said 38 had been injured, while NATO said in a statement that reports at midday indicated that more than 35 civilians were wounded in the blast. NATO said its forces were helping Afghan authorities control the scene and that an investigation was underway.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and the acting head of agriculture in Helmand, Ghulam Sahki, suggested it could have been the work of drug dealers trying to stop the alternate crop program.

A recent NATO operation in the Helmand town of Marjah, south of Lashkar Gah, struck at the heart of the Taliban's opium business that funds the insurgency. NATO, Afghan and U.S. forces took control of the town in a three-week offensive in February and early March but have been faced with a fearful and mistrusting population as they work to set up a functioning government.

NATO forces and the Afghan government have said they hope to push Marjah's poppy farmers toward legal crops with cash incentives and programs like the seed distribution already occurring in places like Nahri Sarraj. The attack Wednesday suggests that those profiting from the south's opium economy may not let that happen easily.

In Kabul, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the operation in Marjah was moving forward successfully and that an upcoming offensive in and around the main southern city of Kandahar is key to stopping the Taliban's growing influence in the south.

Kandahar remains the spiritual heartland of the insurgency and a stubborn holdout in NATO's efforts to help boost the Afghan government's control of the nation. The NATO force has been gearing up for months for a major military push there.

The operation in Kandahar is the military's main focus going in to the summer months, Mullen told reporters.

"It is a cornerstone in reversing the momentum for the Taliban," Mullen said. He noted that about half of the new troops promised by President Barack Obama have yet to arrive and said most of those will be headed to Kandahar.

The offensive in Kandahar will focus on winning over the population and installing a government as quickly as possible, as the Marjah offensive sought to do, he said. However, Mullen emphasized that Kandahar city will be more difficult to take and hold.

"Kandahar is not Marjah, we understand that. It is a much bigger challenge and in that regard has much greater potential to achieve this goal of reversing the momentum," he said.

A number of power brokers and foreign governments wield influence in the area, a situation that NATO plans to do its best to address he said. In one example of outside actors, Mullen said he was briefed Tuesday about "a significant shipment of weapons from Iran into Kandahar not too long ago." He declined to provide further details.

Seizing control of Kandahar would help to put the Afghan government in a position of strength to pursue reconciliation talks with insurgents, Mullen said.

But, he said, those talks would be premature right now.

"This must be done from a position of strength," Mullen said, adding: "I don't think we're in that position of strength right now."

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