Military commanders raised the Afghan flag in the bullet-ridden main market of the Taliban's southern stronghold of Marjah on Wednesday as firefights continued to break out elsewhere in the town between holed-up militants and US and Afghan troops.
About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the offensive around Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people that was the largest population center in southern Helmand province under Taliban control.
NATO hopes to rush in aid and public services as soon as the town is secured to try to win the loyalty of the population. With the assault in its fifth day, an Afghan army soldier climbed to the roof of an abandoned shop and raised a large bamboo pole with Afghanistan's official green-and-red flag.
A crowd including the provincial governor, a few hundred Marine and Afghan troops and handfuls of civilians - Afghan men in turbans and traditional loose tunics who were searched for weapons as they entered the bazaar - watched from below.
The market was calm during the ceremony and Marines there said they are in control of the neighborhood.
But the detritus of fighting was everywhere.
The back of the building over which the flag waved had been blown away. Shops were riddled with bullet holes. Grocery stores and fruit stalls had been left standing open, hastily deserted by their owners. White metal fences marked off areas that had not yet been cleared of bombs.
Afghan soldiers said they were guarding the shops to prevent looting and hoped the proprietors would soon feel safe enough to return.
One Marjah resident at the flag-raising said the area around the market has been devastated by the assault.
"The Taliban fired a few shots and then the troops came and bombed the area," said Abdul Rasheed, a middle-aged man with a black beard and wearing a white cap on his head.
"People fled their homes in a desert without food and water. Children and women are living in very hard conditions."
The Marines and Afghan troops "saw sustained but less frequent insurgent activity" in Marjah on Wednesday, limited mostly to small-scale attacks, NATO said in a statement.
NATO forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay told journalists in Brussels that by Wednesday most of the objectives the attack force had set itself had been achieved.
He declined to specify what percentage of Marjah had been occupied, but said the allied forces were now intent on clearing the last pocket of resistance in the western part of the town.
"Perhaps the pocket in the western side of Marjah still gives freedom of movement to the Taliban, but that is the extent of their movement," Tremblay said.
The US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said there is evidence that Taliban in and around Marjah are reaching out to the government about the possibility of switching sides following appeals by President Hamid Karzai.
"I was told repeatedly during the day today that there have been contacts going on all throughout the combat zone of Taliban who are seeking more information on Karzai's statements on reintegration and who are, of course, deeply affected by the military pressure they are coming under," Holbrooke told reporters in Kabul.
The offensive in Marjah - about 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul - is the biggest assault since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan and a major test of a retooled NATO strategy to focus on protecting civilians, rather than killing insurgents.
About 40 insurgents have been killed since the offensive began Saturday, Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal said. Four NATO service members have been killed, and one Afghan soldier.
Even with caution on both the NATO and Afghan side, civilians have been killed too. NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have been killed.
Insurgents are increasingly using civilians as human shields - firing at Afghan troops from inside or next to compounds where women and children appear to have been ordered to stand on a roof or in a window, said Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, the brigade commander for Afghan troops in Marjah.
"They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians," Ghori said.
Ghori said troops have made choices either not to fire at the insurgents with civilians nearby or they have had to target and advance much more slowly in order to distinguish between militants and civilians as they go.
One Afghan soldier said that he has seen many civilians wounded as they were caught in the crossfire.
"I myself saw lots of people that were shot, and they were ordinary people," said Esmatullah, who did not give his rank and like many Afghans goes by one name. He said some were hit by Taliban bullets and some by Marine or Army troops.
Taliban "were firing at us from people's homes. So in returning fire, people got shot," he said.
In northern Marjah, US Marines fanned out through opium poppy fields, dirt roads and side alleys to take control of a broader stretch of area from insurgents as machine gun fire rattled in the distance.
The Marines found several compounds that had primitive drawings on their walls depicting insurgents blowing up tanks or helicopters, a sign that Afghan troops say revealed strong Taliban support in the neighborhood.
Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said security has improved enough in the north of town for Afghan police to step in. Other Marine units have taken control of main locations in the center of town.
"Bringing in the Afghan police frees up my forces to clear more insurgent zones," Christmas said.
Some 1,100 police - including 900 members of a special paramilitary force - were deployed on Wednesday to Marjah and the surrounding area, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said in a videoconference with journalists in Brussels.
Mangal, the Helmand governor, said the plan is that Afghan and allied troops will turn neighborhoods over to Afghan police as they are secured.
"Life is returning to normal," he said. "You can see the people are busy in their daily lives. Some shops are still closed but once they arrest the enemy, hopefully, the shops will reopen too."
The town is probably safe enough at this point for the deputy district chief to be installed and start setting up the government, Frank Ruggiero, the senior US State Dept. representative for southern Afghanistan.
"It's probably secure enough now, in Marjah, for him to go in," Ruggiero told reporters in Kabul. He said the deputy district head and a team of US civilian advisers are slated to be installed sometime in the next few days, though he declined to be more specific.
One problem: the Taliban planted bombs all over abandoned government buildings in Marjah, including inserting them inside the walls of the district center, Ruggiero said.
The US has a number of development projects ready to start as soon as they set up shop in Marjah, including a road to link Marjah to Lashkar Gah and an agricultural program, he added.
Ruggiero did not have a figure for how much the US is spending directly on Marjah, but said there is a $10 million US aid program that is used for all of southern Afghanistan.