Washington — An initial force of about 500 Marines seized an airstrip in southern Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced Monday. President Bush said the troops would assist in hunting down terrorists linked to the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.
"We're smoking them out, they're running and now we're going to bring them to justice," Bush said after the first major seizure of Afghan territory by American ground forces.
Bush cautioned that, as the war moves into this new, potentially more dangerous phase, "America must be prepared for loss of life."
"Obviously, no president or commander in chief hopes anybody loses life in the theater, but it's going to happen," Bush said. He spoke in the White House Rose Garden after meeting with two freed U.S. humanitarian aid workers who had been imprisoned in Afghanistan.
The first wave of Marines seized the airfield near Kandahar and encountered no immediate resistance, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said earlier.
At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to discuss in detail the purpose of moving Marines into Afghanistan, although he suggested they will be used to tighten the squeeze on Taliban and al-Qaida leaders by limiting their movements from the Kandahar area.
Rumsfeld said "hundreds, not thousands" of Marines would "establish, hold and protect" their forward operating base, but not necessarily as the vanguard of a substantially larger American ground force.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he expected the military campaign in Afghanistan would take some time, and that Taliban leader Mohammed Omar will fight to the death for Kandahar.
"We think they'll dig in and fight and fight perhaps to the end," Myers said. "We do not think it will over anytime soon."
About 1,000 Marines were expected to take part in establishing the initial ground base at the Kandahar airfield.
"There were no difficulties," Clarke said. Their mission is to establish a forward operating base, she added, declining to further explain the operation except to say the U.S. forces would apply pressure to Taliban militia forces and the al-Qaida terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
Bush said he would leave operational details of the Marine ground force to the Pentagon. But in general terms, he said, "We're patient, we're resolved, and we will stay the course until we achieve the objective.
"This is a dangerous period of time, this is a period of time in which we're now hunting down people responsible for bombing America," Bush said.
Bush said Afghanistan is still just the beginning of the larger war against terrorism.
Asked whether Iraq might be the next target, Bush expanded his threat to go after states that harbor terrorists to include those that "develop weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations."
And, he had a specific warning for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein: "He needs to let inspectors back in his country to show he is not developing weapons of mass destruction."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer later played down the remarks, saying Bush warned Iraq during the presidential campaign not to use or sell weapons of mass destruction. He also said Bush was referring to the fact that Iraq, North Korea and a handful of other nations are listed on the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism.
In response to a reporter's question, Bush said he is not worried that Pakistan, as it airlifts its own citizens out of Afghanistan, might be helping al-Qaida members elude capture by the United States.
"We've had good discussions with Pakistan. They understand the objective is to bring al-Qaida to justice and they've indicated they'll help us do so," he said.
The first wave of U.S. troops was transported by helicopter, while follow-on forces were being flown in on C-130 transport plans from an unidentified land base, Clarke said at the Pentagon.
The troop movement was expected to take at least another day to complete and more than 1,000 Marines were involved, she said.
A Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the effort as "a classic airfield seizure."
Meanwhile, Clarke said five U.S. military men were injured in a "friendly fire" incident near Mazar-e-Sharif when a U.S. JDAM smart bomb missed the target. None of the injuries were life-threatening. Three of the injured were removed to Uzbekistan and the other two remained in Afghanistan.
The Marine incursion shifted American involvement in Afghanistan war onto a new plain after weeks dominated by U.S. bombing in support of forces opposing Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia.
The first wave numbered in the low hundreds, and plans called for several hundred more to arrive from Marine amphibious warships in the Arabian Sea, a senior defense official said Sunday night.
The Marines are part of the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units. The 15th is based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the 26th is from Camp Lejeune, N.C.