Anger builds as campaign continues

After two weeks of air raids against Afghanistan there are no signs of collapse by the Taliban regime, yet there are indications that the bombs and missiles have opened festering feuds in Pakistan and harmed U.S. credibility.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose support of the U.S.-led air campaign has sparked unrest in his country, has warned of an even larger Muslim backlash if intense fighting continues during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-November.

Even before Ramadan is taken into account, the political fallout from the raids has been substantial.

Reports of suffering by the Afghan people strike a chord in Pakistan, which shares ethnic ties. Despite the Pentagon's denial, UN and international aid agencies report a considerable number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. One in five of Afghanistan's 24 million people have fled to neighboring nations, are on the move or are begging for sanctuary at the borders of Pakistan and Iran.

Scholars and military analysts argue the longer the raids last, the more the Taliban will gain international sympathy for confronting the American "bully."

"The U.S is losing credibility at grass-roots level where its policies have long been criticized as marred by duplicity and injustice. If a country has extraordinary power like the United States then it needs to be even-handed to be credible," said professor Khalid Rahman, executive director of the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, an independent entity.

With Afghanistan's primitive infrastructure already bombed to rubble and a bitter winter barely a month away, United Nations relief organizations predict some 6 million Afghans face starvation or death unless food and medical shipments reach remote areas before the winter.

Even if the shipments resumed now, the volume of supplies would not be enough.

Afghan refugees talk of chaos: no food, no medicine, empty and shuttered shops. Small armed groups roam the countryside foraging for supplies.

Pakistan, linked to its Afghan neighbors by a dominant Pashtun population, is on the verge of a popular revolt. Pakistan's usually cohesive armed forces are finding it difficult to contain public anger.

On Tuesday, police in Jacobabad charged Islamic militants to avert an anti-American demonstration near an air base used to support U.S. personnel. More than 140 people were arrested, authorities and witnesses said.

Wielding clubs, the police rushed at about 200 protesters who were shouting "Osama is our hero" near Shahbaz Air Base, ordering them to disperse.

Militant leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest and most influential religious party, had called on followers to mass and reach the base "at any cost." The party wants to expel U.S. personnel supporting the campaign in Afghanistan.

Also Tuesday, the Pentagon confirmed that two U.S. helicopters had been fired on from Pakistan as their crews attempted to retrieve the wreckage of another helicopter that crashed during a weekend raid.

Opinion polls indicate 4 in 5 Pakistanis resent Musharraf's policy to allow U.S. forces the use of military bases though he has promised that no attacks on Afghanistan will be staged from Pakistani soil.

Thousands of young Pakistanis have pledged to fight with their Muslim brothers against the U.S.-led coalition.

"So many fighters have crossed into Afghanistan we received a request from Kandahar saying, `Right now we don't need fighters, we need money,'" said Mullah Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who runs the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad and has fought with the Taliban in the past.

Musharraf has insisted for weeks that most of Pakistan is behind him, and protests--while loud and sometimes violent--have been scattered and have included only a sliver of Pakistan's population.

In Pakistan and throughout the Islamic world, radical Muslim clerics have been repeating the Taliban line that the air campaign is an assault against Islam--despite U.S. insistence that it is not.

Although the clerics' message has not been universally accepted, the Pakistanis and others fear that opposition to the air campaign may increase if Muslim civilians are killed during a time when their religion calls for prayer and reflection.

Muslim allies, including Pakistan, are pressuring the United States to score a major victory on the ground before Ramadan begins or agree to a lengthy delay in the Afghan operation.

During an appearance Monday on CNN's "Larry King Live," Musharraf said he hoped "that this campaign comes to an end before the month of Ramadan, and one would hope for restraint during the month of Ramadan."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has played down the Ramadan factor, saying there is no deadline for completing military action in Afghanistan.

"History is replete with instances where Muslim nations have fought among themselves or with other countries during various important holy days for their religion, and it has not inhibited them historically," he said Tuesday.

However, America's Muslim allies don't see it that way. Muslims fighting among themselves during Ramadan is one thing. Non-Muslims attacking Muslims is another matter, they say.

Tribune news services contributed to this report.