Afghan insurgents launch rocket-propelled grenade into main U.S. base
MARJA, Afghanistan — Voter turnout for Saturday’s Parliamentary elections was extremely low in Marja, a Helmand Province battleground, as bullets flew over the polling station near the district center, firefights erupted in the fields lining the network of canals and insurgents launched a rocket-propelled grenade into the main United States Marine base here.
No one was injured in the rocket blast, which landed close to an ammunition supply area and destroyed the wooden platform of a tent housing several Marines, two of whom were in the tent at the time. Marine commanders responded with three Hellfire missiles shot from Reaper drones, which they say killed at least two insurgents who had launched the rocket a quarter mile from the base.
Marines later found a pool of blood, clothes and a watch stopped at 1:42 p.m. at the site of the Hellfire hit. Two villagers in the area told Marines that the missiles had killed two children, but then changed their minds and said that the missiles had wounded a woman and killed two men. Marines said they had no evidence that children had been hit.
Even before the dueling midday blasts between the Taliban and Marines, the streets and bazaars were largely empty here. Late in the day there were reports that 200 Afghans had voted at a polling station Loy Chareh Bazaar near the district center, but there were few Afghans out in the cool, dust-filled air when polls opened at 8 a.m.
By noon there were reports that fewer than 100 people had voted in southern Marja, even though more than 1,000 people — all men — had registered in the area in recent weeks. The population of all of Marja is about 80,000.
By 10:30 a.m., election workers in the polling station at the new Marja high school said that only 27 people had turned up to vote and that the crack of gunfire in the streets was keeping most other people away. As the workers spoke, two booms from rocket-propelled grenades — not that had hit the base — sounded close to the polling station. Marines later said that bullets from AK 47 fire were whizzing over the polling station around the same time.
“The people were coming here to vote, but the shooting stopped them,” said Abdul Bari, 20, the chief election worker at the high school, a small whitewashed building of about a half dozen rooms.
Another election worker, Mohammed Ullah, 21. looked nervous as he sat idly at a table keeping an eye on a stack of ballots, each displaying color photographs of 53 candidates from Helmand. “I’m a little scared,” he said.
The first of the voters at the high school was Mohammed Akbar, 22, who cast his ballot right at 8 a.m. After showing his registration card and dipping his little finger in purple ink — a sign that he had voted — he took the paper ballot into a small voting booth of corrugated cardboard and made his decision. Moments later, gunfire rang out across the fields.
“They’re right on time,” said Lt. Col. Kyle Ellison, the commander of the Second Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment, speaking of Taliban vows to disrupt the election.
Colonel Ellison, who was out on the deserted streets encouraging the few people he saw to vote, said that he remained optimistic about the turnout. But shortly before noon, after a tour of the area’s desolate bazaars, he returned to the main Marine base disappointed by the reality that the Taliban had scared people from going to the polls.
“It’s frustrating to me that people are intimidated by three or four people running around their village,” he said. He said he had hoped that most of the people who had registered would actually have cast their ballots.
“A thousand people would have been a win,” he said.
As he headed into the base’s main command center, he concluded, “You know what? We’ll take six steps forward and two steps back.”
A short time later the rocket hit inside the base. “That was close,” someone in the command center said. Marines were ordered into a bunker, where they remained for more than an hour, until the blasts from the Hellfire missiles sounded overhead.
Several Marines who were either in the tent or nearby when the rocket landed said that it had not been as big an explosion as expected.
“It’s not luck, it’s God,” said Corporal Jason Hamlet, 23, who had been standing less than 15 feet from where the rocket landed.