U.S. troops in Afghanistan recall war dead as offensive looms

BAGRAM, Afghanistan Mon May 31, 2010 6:39pm IST

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BAGRAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan remembered fallen comrades on Monday in a Memorial Day ceremony ahead of a big offensive aimed at reversing the tide of a deadly Taliban insurgency.

U.S. military deaths from the war in Afghanistan -- including non-combat accidents -- have hit 1,087, reinforcing calls for an early end to the nine-year-old war.

On Sunday a British marine was killed in an explosion in southern Helmand, bringing that country's total casualties in Afghanistan to 289.

"Today is about people: The people who we have lost over the years and also those who they have left behind," General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said at a solemn ceremony at coalition headquarters at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul.

Soldiers stood in silence in a compound at the heavily fortified base, their heads bowed as a bugle played in honour of the dead. Earlier this month, Taliban suicide bombers carrying rockets and grenades launched a brazen attack on the sprawling base, killing an American contractor and wounding nine U.S. servicemen.

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A steel beam from the World Trade Centre destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks was unveiled, engraved with the inscription "WTC 9 11 01".

The beam was donated by the Sons and Daughters of America of Breezy Point, a New York suburb where 29 victims of the attacks lived. The beam will remain in Afghanistan until the end of hostilities, the U.S. military said.

The U.S., riding waves of international support, led an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to track down Osama bin Laden and other masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks and unseat their Taliban protectors.

Much of that goodwill evaporated as a result of the invasion of Iraq, and Washington's stretched resources meant the U.S. became intractably involved in Afghanistan.

Thousands of U.S. troops are being deployed in the southern province of Kandahar to wrest full control of the Taliban stronghold as part of McChrystal's new counter-insurgency strategy of protecting big population centres to win back back support of the Afghan people.

The operation is billed as the biggest offensive of the war.

Earlier this year, U.S. Marines launched an offensive in Marjah in Helmand province in the south, retaking the town from the Taliban.

The operation has since come under criticism because residents remain fearful of the Taliban who have sneaked back to carry attacks.

A Washington Post and ABC News poll earlier this month showed 52 percent of Americans think Afghanistan is not a war worth fighting.

(Editing by David Fox)

(If you have a query or comment about this story, send an e-mail to news.feedback.asia@thomsonreuters.com)

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