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Tribe agrees to quell Taliban attacks in volatile Afghan area, U.S. says

The top U.S. Marine commander in southern Afghanistan said Monday that an influential Afghan tribe had agreed to put a stop to Taliban attacks in a highly contested part of Helmand province sometimes called "Afghanistan's Fallujah."

The agreement, if it holds, could provide a much-needed respite for American Marines, who have faced surprisingly effective resistance since they took control of Helmand's Sangin district from British forces in September.

U.S. military officials said they were cautiously optimistic about the deal, which a Taliban spokesman derided as American propaganda intended to demoralize insurgent fighters.

In the past, such accords have proved to be fleeting. In late 2006, British forces agreed to a Taliban cease-fire in another volatile part of Helmand province; the Taliban retook it four months later.

U.S. military officials said they were taking a "wait-and-see" approach to the agreement. Sangin recently has been the scene of some of the most deadly fighting in Afghanistan.

Some military analysts have compared Sangin to Fallujah, the Iraqi city that was the scene of two grueling U.S. military offensives in 2004 that eventually wrested the pivotal area from insurgent control.

More than 100 British soldiers -- a third of all British casualties in Afghanistan -- were killed during the four years they battled insurgents in Sangin. The U.S. Marines have lost 23 men since they took over the area in the fall.

Under the agreement, the tribal leaders vowed to expel foreign fighters, allow Afghan and U.S. forces to patrol the area, contain Taliban attacks and help identify deadly roadside bombs, which have taken a heavy toll on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In exchange, American and Afghan leaders are to pump more money into the area.

"We are cautiously optimistic of this agreement and will monitor whether it leads to reduced insurgent influence," said U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the commander of coalition forces in southwestern Afghanistan.

The deal applies only to Sarwan Qala, a troublesome Taliban haven with about 30 villages in Sangin district that's dominated by members of the Alokozai tribe.

The British forces once in charge of Helmand drew criticism in 2006 for agreeing to a cease-fire in Musa Qala, one of the Taliban's strongest sanctuaries in the province. Four months later, Taliban forces retook Musa Qala.

After the deal, the U.S. general in charge of coalition forces in Afghanistan privately grumbled that the British forces had "made a mess of things" in Helmand, according to a diplomatic cable that WikiLeaks recently released.

Afghan and coalition forces regained control of Musa Qala in late 2007.

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