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AFGHANISTAN: A river, a bridge and a hope

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Uruzgon Province in southern Afghanistan has been one of the most troublesome for U.S. and NATO troops.

It's smack in the middle of the heroin-poppy region. Taliban leader Mullah Omar is from the province. U.S., Australian and Dutch troops have fought the Taliban here -- with much of the battle being to win support of the local populace.

Now the U.S. and the Afghan government hope the just-completed Chutu Bridge over the Helmand River will help in that effort. The bridge cost $2 million and was dedicated this week amid much hoopla, including a hopeful speech by Army Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"Special Forces don't always just fight," he said. "They help build bridges too."

Without the bridge, impoverished villagers had to pay $2 for a ferry ride across the river or travel seven miles to a point where the water was often -- although not always -- shallow enough to permit crossing. The bridge is supposed to make it easier for villagers to get their crops to market, among other benefits.

Like everything in Afghanistan, the 150-meter bridge wasn't easy to build. Other attempts to build crossings were washed away by the rising river.

Villagers have vowed to protect the steel-and-concrete bridge from insurgents tempted to destroy it, U.S. officials said.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Dedication of Chutu Bridge. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.

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