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Monday’s Headlines: U.S., Afghan Troops Continue Push; Clinton in Saudi Arabia

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan

— U.S. Marines fire mortar rounds on Taliban positions in Marjah, Afghanistan, on Monday. Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images.

Three days into the largest military offensive since the start of the Afghanistan war in 2001, some 15,000 U.S., Afghan and NATO forces continued their push Monday through a Taliban stronghold in southwestern Helmand province.

Sniper fire and improvised explosives have slowed the advance through the city of Marjah, however, allied military commanders report a large number of Taliban fighters have already fled the fighting.

“We are not facing any threat now except in South Marjah, where there is a slight resistance, not enough to be an obstacle to our forces,” the commander of Afghan forces in Helmand, Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, said in a news conference Monday alongside the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

The offensive suffered a setback Sunday when two NATO rockets struck a home, killing at least 12 civilians. Four of the dead were children.

The Marjah offensive is a crucial test for President Barack Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan. As the president’s National Security Adviser, James L. Jones, put it on “Fox News Sunday”:

“What’s important about this operation is that it is the first major operation in which we will demonstrate, I think successfully, that the new elements of the strategy — which combine not only security operations but economic reform and good governance at the local and regional level with a much more visible presence of Afghan forces — will take place.”

The New York Times offers a map of the campaign. We’ll have more about the military offensive in Afghanistan on Monday’s PBS NewsHour.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard has amassed so much power that the United States now fears the nation is inching dangerously close to becoming a military dictatorship.

Speaking to students at the Doha campus of Carnegie Mellon University, Clinton said, “We see that the government in Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament, is being supplanted and that Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship.”

While the secretary of state said the United States has no plans to carry out a military strike against Iran, she emphasized America’s commitment to protect allies in the gulf against Iranian aggression. Echoing her call for a “security umbrella” in the region, Clinton said the United States “will always defend ourselves, and we always will defend our friends and allies, and we will certainly defend countries in the Gulf who face the greatest, immediate nearby threat from Iran.”

Clinton travels to Saudi Arabia on Monday, where she will meet with King Abdullah about pressing issues in the Middle East, namely assistance in dealing with Iran.

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Markets in the United States are closed in observance of President’s Day, but investors nonetheless remain rattled about debt problems in Europe. Some of those fears will be addressed Monday when European Union leaders meet to hash out a more detailed response to the debt crisis in Greece. Leaders on the continent on Thursday pledged “determined and coordinated” action to protect Greece, but the lack of a concrete strategy has kept global markets on edge.

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And on this President’s Day, Time magazine is looking back on the top 10 forgettable presidents. Apologies to Martin Van Buren, who tops the list.

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