KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has reached 1,000, an independent website said on Tuesday, with deadly bombings in the south and east highlighting the struggle to stabilize the country.
Civilian and military casualties hit record highs last year as violence reached its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001, with foreign forces launching two big offensives in the past eight months to stem a growing insurgency.
A website which tracks casualties, www.icasualties.org, said 54 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, raising the total to 1,000 since the Taliban's fall. This compares with eight this year in Iraq, where 4,378 have been killed since 2003.
Afghanistan is high on U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda and more American casualties or a military campaign that fails to bring stability to the country in an increasingly unpopular war could harm his presidency.
Also on Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office said he had signed into law changes that remove foreign observers from the electoral watchdog tasked with reviewing voting fraud.
That could put Karzai in conflict with Western donors who have said they will not fund September 18 parliamentary elections without electoral reforms, following a 2009 presidential poll beset by massive fraud.
"The Afghan government for long has wanted to 'Afghanize' the electoral process and 10 days ago, the cabinet ratified the amendment and the president endorsed it," Karzai spokesman Siamak Herawi said.
Free and fair elections are part of a Western strategy to stabilize the nation, alongside military plans to push the Taliban out of its strongholds and give control of them to the Afghan government.
BLAST KILLS CIVILIANS
The Islamist militants have made a comeback, operating out of strongholds in the south into the east and north, and are resisting efforts by President Hamid Karzai's government to impose control.
The second of the offensives, Operation Mushtarak, was launched by NATO-led troops 10 days ago to flush militants out of the Marjah district of Helmand, where they had set up their last big stronghold in Afghanistan's most violent province.
Western forces say they have broken the Taliban's grip and only face pockets of resistance, some of it fierce, in Marjah.
But violence is continuing. A bomb that killed at least seven civilians and wounded 14 near a government building in Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah, underscored the vast security challenges facing NATO and Karzai's U.S.-backed government.
"The blast was caused by explosives attached to a bicycle and was controlled remotely," said Dawud Ahmadi, spokesman for Helmand's provincial government.
Karzai condemned three separate bombings in the past 24 hours, including a suicide attack which killed 16 people in eastern Nangahar province. Ghulam Ghamsharik, a former commander in the war against Soviet occupation troops, and a provincial refugee ministry official were among those killed.
The latest Helmand operation is an early test of Obama's plan to add 30,000 troops to win control of Taliban bastions and hand them over to Afghan authorities before the start of a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.
In an example of the Taliban's tenacity, U.S. Marines who pushed 5 km (3 miles) east of Marjah said they were engaged in a firefight lasting more than eight hours on Monday as they picked their way through rudimentary fortifications.
They called in two strikes by Cobra attack helicopters, which fired Hellfire missiles on dug-in insurgents.
"The clearance went quicker than expected, even though the resistance was more than anticipated," Marine Lieutenant Mark Greenlief told Reuters on Tuesday.
Greenlief said "a lot" of militants were killed but would not say exactly how many. He said Monday's patrol uncovered "multiple" roadside bombs, weapons caches and enemy fighting positions. "We enveloped the insurgents," he said.
Marjah is a prime example of the challenge facing U.S. troops and their NATO allies. The operation's success hinges on whether they can keep Taliban fighters from re-capturing the area and make sure Afghan forces can secure the area on their own.