September 21st, 2007 09:02 EST
81 killed in Afghan fighting, airstrikes
KABUL, Afghanistan - Heavy battles punctuated by airstrikes killed 75 suspected Taliban and at least six civilians in Afghanistan's south, while a U.S. official on Friday accused Iran of supplying roadside bomb components to militants to get American soldiers "out of the region."
Adm. William Fallon said Iran is providing development assistance in western Afghanistan, which he labeled helpful. But he said Iran's Revolutionary Guard is also supplying roadside bomb parts for the type of sophisticated and deadly bombs found in Iraq known as "explosively formed penetrators" — accusations the U.S. has made repeatedly in Iraq as well.
"The Iranians are clearly supplying some amount of lethal aid," Fallon told The Associated Press. "There is no doubt .... that agents from Iran are involved in aiding the insurgency."
Iran has denied that it is supplying arms to fighters in Afghanistan.
Fallon said Iran is trying to ensure that it has a role in the region's politics.
"And I think they put a priority on causing us as much frustration as they can," he said. "I think it's all aimed at embarrassing us and one of their long-standing aims is getting us out of the region."
NATO's International Security Assistance Force has said that three shipments of weapons emanating from Iran have been intercepted in Afghanistan since the spring. The latest was intercepted in the western province of Farah on Sept. 6.
Fallon said the U.S. was carefully watching the flow of weapons from Iran, and that border interdiction efforts may need to be increased.
NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, told The Washington Post in a story published Friday that the Sept. 6 shipment likely was sent into the country with the knowledge of Iran's Republican Guard and possibly the Quds Force, the country's elite covert military arm.
Early Friday, airstrikes were called in against "anti-coalition militants" in the Garmsir district of Helmand province early Friday, killing about 40 fighters, the coalition said. Soldiers found more than 20 rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and land mines in the militants' compound, it said.
Women and children were among the six civilians killed in separate fighting in Helmand province's Gereshk region on Wednesday after Taliban fighters fled from NATO forces and sought shelter in homes, said Gereshk district chief Abdul Manaf Khan.
Taliban fighters attacked coalition forces from a housing compound that was later targeted in an airstrike. ISAF said it was "unaware" civilians were in the area, but acknowledged civilian casualties.
Civilians deaths from U.S. and NATO military action have become a major issue in Afghanistan this year. President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly pleaded with international forces to halt such casualties.
Wednesday's deaths appear to be the first since early August.
NATO began a new operation Wednesday in southern Helmand province, the world's largest poppy growing region and site of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year.
In another newly reported battle, more than three dozen Taliban fighters were reported killed in a clash Wednesday in Uruzgan province, the coalition said.
The fighting began when Afghan and coalition troops spotted a dozen insurgents planting roadside bombs, sparking a 14-hour battle that included airstrikes against Taliban fighters taking cover in village homes, it said.
Separately, a bombing in Kabul targeting a French military convoy killed one soldier and an Afghan civilian and, hospital and NATO officials said. The blast blew the windows out of a civilian bus and set at least one vehicle on fire.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the attack as "cowardly and odious."
Afghanistan has seen a record level of fighting this year. More than 4,400 people have died in insurgency-related violence around the country, according to an Associated Press count based on official figures.
By BRIAN MURPHY
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