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US, NATO, Afghan Troops Planning Major Southern Offensive

Marines of the 2nd Expeditionary Brigade fire mortar rounds from their forward operating base in Mian Poshteh in Helmand Province, 23 Nov 2009

U.S. and Afghan commanders say thousands of allied troops in Afghanistan's south are planning a large offensive against a longtime Taliban stronghold.

Commanders say the joint, Afghan-led mission will target militants in Marjah, a Taliban-held district in Helmand province. The offensive is said to be the largest since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 additional American troops to reverse the Afghan Taliban's gains in recent years. Officials did not say when the offensive would begin.

NATO officials also said Wednesday that a bomb attack killed two U.S. soldiers in southern Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is meeting with Saudi King Abdullah to discuss ways to reach out to the Taliban.

During talks in Saudi Arabia Wednesday, Mr. Karzai is expected to discuss his reconciliation plan aimed at providing Taliban fighters with an economic incentive to lay down their arms or switch sides.

President Karzai has said Saudi Arabia's role is extremely important for Afghanistan. However, Saudi officials say they have no intention of getting involved in peacemaking in Afghanistan until the Taliban severs ties with Saudi-born al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

On his arrival Tuesday, Mr. Karzai and his delegation made a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries that recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before it was ousted in late 2001.

Mr. Karzai said last week he plans to summon a "loya jirga," or grand council of elders, in the coming weeks as part of a push to reconcile with the Taliban and other insurgents.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.