Karzai: NATO still causes too many civilian deaths

KABUL: Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that NATO's efforts to prevent civilian deaths during its operations are not enough because innocent people keep dying, as the military alliance continued its offensive in a key Taliban stronghold.

In a speech at the opening session of the Afghan parliament, Karzai also repeated his call to Taliban fighters to renounce al-Qaida and join with the government — an appeal that may have more resonance after recent arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan.

Karzai held up a picture of an 8-year-old girl who he said was the only one left to recover the bodies of her 12 relatives, killed when two NATO rockets struck their home during the offensive in the southern town of Marjah. He called the incident a tragedy for all Afghanistan.

Karzai said that NATO has made progress in reducing civilian casualties and air bombardments — which have been responsible for some of the largest incidents of civilian deaths. And he thanked NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who attended the speech, for "standing with us honestly in this effort."

However, Karzai stressed that the effort is not sufficient.

"We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties," Karzai said. "Our effort and our criticism will continue until we reach that goal."

The week-old operation in Marjah is a major test of a new NATO strategy that stresses protecting civilians over routing insurgents as quickly as possible.

But the strategy has proved difficult. At least 15 civilians have died despite the care taken. Meanwhile, the painstaking process of separating out innocent people from militants has slowed troops' progress in gaining control of the Taliban stronghold.

In Marjah on Saturday, small arms fire and single sniper rounds intensified in a pocket near the center of town as insurgent gun squads tried to close in on Marines, who fought back with their own sniper fire and grenade launchers.

The massive operation in Marjah — a town of about 80,000 people — is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Twelve NATO troops have died so far in the offensive, and senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.

Karzai pressed Taliban fighters once again to put down their guns and join with the Afghan government.

"Stop the war. Come back to your home and help with the reconstruction," Karzai said. He said he was confident the appeal he has been making for years has more chance of succeeding now that the international community is supporting the idea. Saudi Arabia has long been involved in trying to broker talks with the Taliban, and other nations also backed the idea in a recent conference in London.

Pakistan, meanwhile, appears to have become more strident in tracking down Taliban leaders who have sought sanctuary there. A number of high-profile arrests have been made there in recent weeks and a CIA missile strike that killed the brother of a Taliban commander in Pakistan suggests the Pakistanis may be providing vital intelligence to the United States.

The Afghan president spoke to about 200 lawmakers in Parliament's grand main hall in the capital. The parliamentarians were returning to work after a recess of about one month.


Associated Press Writer Alfred de Montesquiou contributed to this report from Marjah, Afghanistan.