KABUL, Afghanistan -- US forces tracked down a band of insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, setting off a battle in which two Marines were killed, the military said today.
The clash happened yesterday in Laghman province, an opium-producing region where US forces regularly battle militants.
The dead were not identified. The military said about 25 insurgents were involved in the clash.
Meanwhile, in Kabul, hundreds of tribal leaders yesterday backed President Hamid Karzai's plan for a ''strategic partnership" with the United States, a government spokesman said, a pact that could cement a long-term US military presence in Central Asia.
More than 1,000 elders and officials from across Afghanistan met with Karzai in the presidential palace in Kabul yesterday for consultations on the plan, spokesman Jawed Ludin said.
''Our finding from today's discussion was that people are, on the whole, very positive about this," Ludin said at a news conference, adding that only one person had spoken against the plan. Ludin did not detail the man's objections.
Karzai will probably talk about the partnership -- which Afghan officials say must cover economic and political links, as well as military aid -- in a meeting with President Bush in Washington later this month, the spokesman said.
Discussions, begun several months ago, were entering ''a more formal phase," Ludin said.
About 17,000 US soldiers are in Afghanistan pursuing Al Qaeda rebels and militant followers of the ousted Taliban government. A separate NATO-led force has about 8,500 troops in the capital and across the north and west.
American commanders have said they expect to have forces in the country, which borders Iran, nuclear-armed Pakistan, and oil-rich Central Asia, for many more years. But Washington and Kabul have no treaty to govern the US presence beyond the current mission, which is part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Ludin said the government wanted US as well as NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan until Afghan government forces are able to take their place.
The new Afghan Army, trained mainly by the United States, Britain, and France, was expected to reach full strength of 70,000 in September 2006, though Afghan defense officials insist it would be too small to defend the country.
Afghan officials say the United Nations, which has piloted the country's course toward democracy, also should stay on when its mission expires with parliamentary elections in September.
Ludin said delegates at the meeting yesterday put more emphasis on economic support than military aid and expressed concern about the heavy-handed style of US-led operations, which have led to the deaths of several civilians this year.