British and Afghan soldiers in Helmand province prepare to take part in a major Nato operation. The British operations, led by helicopter advances, are on the outskirts of Marjah, a warren of desert canals that are held by the Taliban. US Marines intend to seize the area in what will be one of the biggest assaults of the war. British and Afghan troops were carrying out operations in Nad Ali district as part of an initial phase of Operation Moshtarak or Together, an assault to take the entire district, military sources said. Nad Ali includes Marjah, which the Marines describe as the last major Taleban-held bastion in the south of the province, which is Afghanistans most violent region. It is also where most of the countrys illegal opium crop, which helps fund the insurgency, is grown. The assault will be the first to employ some of the 30,000 troops sent by President Obama at the end of last year. Nato commanders say that they intend to turn the tide this year on an insurgency that has grown far stronger and more deadly in recent years. Mr Obama has said that he plans to begin drawing down forces in mid-2011. British troops have been conducting shaping operations for a few weeks in the area, and launched fresh helicopter and ground advances in the past 36 hours, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield said. The operations which have been taking place in the British area of Nad Ali District over the last 36 hours have been part of that same series of 'shaping operations, all part of Op (operation) Moshtarak, he said. They have been commanded jointly by Afghan and British commanders and have involved insertions by helicopter and ground of Afghan and British troops to locations to the west of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, he said. Marjah sits near the dividing line between the northern part of the province, patrolled by a nearly 10,000-strong British-led Nato contingent, and the southern areas patrolled by the US Marines, who mainly arrived last year and now number some 15,000. US commanders say that the operation to seize Marjah will be backed by a larger Afghan contingent than ever before, in an effort to demonstrate the Afghan Governments ability to take part in enforcing its own security. (The Times)