KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. Marines have pulled out of a Taliban (search) stronghold in southern Afghanistan after killing more than 100 enemy fighters, their commander said Thursday.
The 2,400-strong force, which lost just one Marine, has withdrawn to an American air base in the southern city of Kandahar and is preparing to leave the country, Col. Frank McKenzie said. The withdrawal already had been announced.
The Marines were returning to American warships "to await further orders," military spokesman Maj. Rick Peat said. He said there were no indications that the Marines would be redeployed in Iraq but said he didn't know where the ships were.
The contingent, part of the special-operations-capable 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, deployed in late March in an attempt to divert militants from attacking preparations for historic elections.
Speaking to reporters in Kabul, McKenzie said he "would not challenge" reports that more than 100 enemy fighters were killed during the Marines' four-month tour in and around Uruzgan, home of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar (search). He declined to give an exact figure.
The arrival of the Marines, who are based at Camp Lejeune (search), N.C., brought U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to about 20,000 — the most ever. The overall American commander here, Lt. Gen. David Barno, has said the force will settle at about 17,000 once they leave.
A battalion from the 25th Infantry Division (search), which provides the backbone of the American force here, has already moved into Uruzgan to replace them.
But violence has continued and parliamentary elections have been shelved until April. A vote for president is set for Oct. 9, more than three months later than originally scheduled.
Cpl. Roland Payne, of Lakeland, Fla., was killed May 7 during a nighttime firefight with Taliban insurgents. Eleven other Marines were injured in combat operations, often conducted jointly with Afghan troops. None of the Afghans was killed; about 15 were wounded.
The fighting was the bloodiest in Afghanistan since last fall and brought to more than 600 the number of people killed in violence here this year.
McKenzie said his forces' "decisive combat success" had helped pave the way for Afghans in the Uruzgan area to register to vote in the upcoming elections.
But the level of fighting also illustrates the enduring resistance to foreign troops and the government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai (search) more than two years after the fall of the Taliban.