Afghan President Hamid Karzai made an unannounced visit to the southern town of Marjah on Sunday, promising to rebuild the former Taliban stronghold after a massive operation there by NATO troops, Reuters reported.
NATO forces say persuading villagers in Marjah to back Karzai's government is the ultimate aim of what has been billed as the biggest offensive of the 8-year-old war.
The operation is also seen as a first test of U.S. President Barack Obama's "surge" of 30,000 extra troops, which is intended to turn the tide in the conflict this year.
"Today I'm here to listen to you and to hear your problems," Karzai told a gathering of about 300 local elders assembled on rugs in a mosque near the town's main bazaar.
During two hours of talks, the elders complained -- shouting at times -- about looted shops, house searches, civilian casualties, arrests and Western forces using schools as bases.
Karzai promised to provide security, open schools and build roads and clinics. When he asked the gathering: "Will you support me?," elders raised their hands and shouted: "We are with you."
"I had the opportunity to meet people and talk to them. At the same time, it's a source of sadness that they have suffered from the Afghan government and foreigners," Karzai later told reporters. "The promises we have made of security and reconstruction, we will fulfill them."
He was joined during the meeting by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces, who have largely taken control of Marjah in operation Mushtarak, which began last month and been described as the single biggest offensive of the war so far.
McChrystal sat on the floor during the meeting, listening to Karzai through an interpreter, but did not speak.
Marjah, a fertile warren of desert canals in Helmand's opium-growing heartland, was billed as the last big Taliban stronghold in the country's most violent province.
Thousands of U.S. Marines flooded into the town last month, joined by about 1,500 Afghan troops. British troops conducted simultaneous operations to seize areas on its outskirts.
Some fighters may still be in the area. A rocket or mortar fell about four km (1.5 miles) from where Karzai was to appear before he arrived, but did not explode and no one was hurt, said Dawud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand provincial governor.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Mohammad Yousuf, said by telephone from an undisclosed location that militants had fired rockets at a delegation that included Karzai. A NATO official in Kabul also said there had been a rocket or mortar strike in the town with no explosion, and no one was hurt.
Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, has survived numerous assassination attempts.
NATO troops say the president played a more important role in approving and planning the Marjah offensive than he has in the past.
The stated aim of the offensive was to bring an Afghan "government in a box" to Marjah, extending the reach of Karzai's government to an area where it previously had no authority.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the area on Saturday, but returned to Britain and was not there on Sunday.