Now America is braced for the backlash

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AMERICA YESTERDAY pledged itself to a new crusade against terrorism, even as its missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan were greeted with a huge and potentially threatening backlash.

"This is going to be a long term battle against terrorists who have declared war on the United States," Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State said yesterday morning. "That is what Osama bin Laden did. He made clear that all Americans and American facilities were potential targets."

Washington warned there would be more strikes on groups that threaten the US. "I do not rule anything out," said Sandy Berger, the National Security Adviser.

The US said it believed the missiles had done their jobs, though because of cloud cover it said immediate assessments were limited. "I think we've done some considerable damage to the camps," Mr Berger said.

The target was infrastructure in the two countries, not individuals, Ms Albright said. "I think we have made a considerable dent in that."

Opinion polls showed 66 per cent of the American public backed the attacks and 19 per cent opposed them; but 36 per cent believed that President Bill Clinton launched the missiles to distract from his problems in Washington over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

The US launched 70 missiles at sites in Afghanistan from ships in the Arabian Sea, and six from the Red Sea at a factory in the Sudan capital Khartoum, which America contends was a chemical weapons plant and the Sudanese say was a pharmaceutical factory making antibiotics.

The casualty count, according to observers in Afghanistan, was between 11 and 21 dead, with dozens more wounded. Two training camps were destroyed, one of which was a base for a Kashmiri group, Harkat ul-Mujahedin, and five of the dead were said to be Pakistani.

Pakistan condemned the attack on Afghanistan, but the government retracted an earlier statement that a stray missile had struck its territory and killed five people. The retraction followed a telephone call by President Clinton to the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

But the attacks raised a firestorm of criticism in the Muslim world, with several groups threatening the US it would not be allowed to get away with its actions. American airports were put on raised security alert, and Americanswere warned about the risks of travelling in Muslim countries.

Britain advised against travelling to Sudan, and said visitors to Muslim countries should be cautious.

The militant Palestinian group Hamas called the strikes "state terrorism", and the organisation's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, said "the United States will certainly harvest the fruits of its bloody aggression". Palestinians burned American flags on the West Bank, and the Stars and Stripes also burned in many other cities, including Khartoum, and Peshawar in Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, the backlash took concrete form as two Western aid workers were shot and wounded. The UN withdrew all expatriate aid workers from Afghanistan and also withdrew from Pakistan's North-West Frontier province.

Russia lashed out at America for launching the attacks without prior consultation. "I am outraged and I denounce this," said Boris Yeltsin. "My attitude is indeed negative as it would be to any act of terrorism, military interference, failure to solve a problem through talks," he said.

The US received backing from its allies, including Britain, Germany, Egypt and Israel.

The Taliban forces in Afghanistan - paid and armed by America's Saudi allies - condemned the attack and refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, accused by Washington of being behind the bomb attacks on US embassies in Africa.

The Saudis themselves, who have kept discreet links with Mr bin Laden despite his declaration of a holy war against the US, gave no support to the American air strikes; Mr bin Laden, who has demanded the withdrawal of all US troops from the Arabian peninsula, himself maintains contact with several members of the Saudi royal family.

Most US embassy staff have now left Islamabad and diplomats continued to flee the region. All over the Arab world, US citizens have been warned by their government of the danger to their lives. In more than half of the Middle East land mass - in Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya - there is now no US diplomatic presence.

Mr Clinton may believe he is winning his war against "terrorism"; but Mr bin Laden might be forgiven for thinking that America is on the run.