WASHINGTON -- Marines now aboard assault ships in the Arabian Sea are likely to be sent into Afghanistan, possibly this week, to join Army special operations troops already there, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.
The official stressed that no final decision has been made and that it was uncertain how many Marines might be sent in and what missions they would perform. They might provide security at sites inside Afghanistan where other U.S. forces are operating, or they might expand work by the Army special forces in blocking roads and searching for clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden in southern Afghanistan.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said as many as 1,500 Marines might go. It was possible that a small advance team would slip into Afghanistan first to arrange for the others' arrival.
The U.S. hunt for terrorist leaders has already met with some success. The Nov. 14 airstrike on a building south of Kabul that killed al-Qaida's military chief, Mohammed Atef, also killed another 50 al-Qaida members, several senior Taliban officials, and an undisclosed number of Taliban fighters, said another U.S. official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
There are two Marine Corps task forces, known as Marine Expeditionary Units, now aboard Navy ships in the Arabian Sea. One task force is headed by the USS Bataan; the other is led by the USS Peleliu. The Marines are trained in a variety of missions, including quick-strike ground assault.
The Pentagon also is planning to send additional troops into northern Afghanistan soon to work with other foreign forces in protecting a land route for humanitarian relief, other officials said Tuesday.
U.S. Central Command is still working out details, including how many U.S. troops may be needed to repair and secure roads, even as it steps up the search for bin Laden and senior members of his al-Qaida terrorist network.
The United States has several hundred special operations troops inside Afghanistan, mainly to work with anti-Taliban forces, to identify targets for U.S. warplanes and to scout for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts.
Now that about three-quarters of Afghan territory is no longer in Taliban control -- according to the Pentagon's estimate -- the United States and allied countries are focusing more on accelerating the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Victoria Clarke, spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said the extra U.S. troops may include engineers for road repairs and explosives experts to clear mines and boobie traps in the vicinity of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. officials don't know whether bin Laden is still in Afghanistan. Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said they believe bin Laden remains in the country.
Stufflebeem said U.S. bombing continues to target caves and tunnels thought to be used by al-Qaida leaders.
The Air Force has sent three more AC-130 gunships to the area to work with Predator unmanned reconnaissance aircraft in targeting small groups of Taliban or al-Qaida leaders moving overland, a senior defense official said. The three gunships, operating from a base in Uzbekistan, are in addition to three that have been flying combat missions there for several weeks.
Stufflebeem said the U.S. military might refrain from bombing some targets in the vicinity of Kunduz -- a northern city where Taliban and opposition forces are locked in a standoff -- while negotiations there continue.
Negotiations with the Taliban commander of Kunduz aim to secure the surrender of the city of 100,000 and stave off what threatens to be the bloodiest battle yet of the Taliban's collapse.
Rumsfeld has said he is against any deal that would allow Taliban or terrorist forces to escape to do harm in another country another day. But Stufflebeem said Tuesday that bombing could be halted if opposition forces asked.
"If the opposition would ask us not to bomb a specific facility or location so they could continue discussion, we'll certainly honor that," Stufflebeem told a Pentagon news conference.
The Pentagon released transcripts of two radio broadcasts touting an offer of $25 million in reward money for information leading to the location or capture of bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, a top bin Laden lieutenant
"The partnership of nations and Afghan forces fighting to free Afghanistan will continue to hunt down these cowards," one broadcast says. "With your help we will bring the hiding Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists to face justice for their crimes."
The broadcasts are being made by an EC-130 aircraft known as Commando Solo.
To reinforce the message, the U.S. military is dropping leaflets, too, touting the reward money.