Afghan Clerics Suggest Exit for Fugitive
Taliban Leader Is Encouraged to Seek Bin Laden's Voluntary Departure

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 21, 2001; Page A01

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 20 -- Afghanistan's top Islamic clerics recommended today that the nation's ruling Taliban militia persuade alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden to leave the country. But the United States swiftly rejected the move, repeating its demand that the Taliban surrender bin Laden or face possible military attack.

The clerics did not set a deadline for bin Laden to depart, saying that he should be encouraged to leave "in the proper time and of his own free will." But the decision nevertheless was the first time Afghan leaders have distanced themselves from bin Laden, a longtime guest of the Taliban who has become the world's most wanted man for his alleged role in last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Later tonight, in an address to Congress, President Bush issued an ultimatum to the Taliban, saying it must hand over bin Laden immediately or face military action.

"The Taliban must act and act immediately," Bush said. "They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate."

U.S. officials, speaking before Bush's address tonight, called the clerics' recommendation insufficient. "It does not meet America's requirements," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

"We want action, not just statements," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in Washington. "The sooner he leaves and is brought to justice, the better off I think the world will be."

The clerics' recommendation was conveyed to the Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar, who will decide whether to pass the message on to bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi exile who has been hiding in Afghanistan since 1996. Omar previously has said he would not extradite bin Laden. But at a news conference today in Kabul, the Afghan capital, the Taliban's education minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, said Omar "will act on the basis of the clerics' guidance," the Reuters news agency reported.

Late tonight, the Taliban reiterated that it would not force bin Laden to leave. The Taliban embassy in Islamabad said that making him flee "would be an insult to Islam."

Muttaqi said the process of relocating bin Laden "must happen slowly."

"Osama has many enemies, and he must find an appropriate place to go," he said. "This is a big task, and it needs time."

The clerics also said they would formally call for a jihad, or a holy war, if U.S. forces attack targets in Afghanistan. "If a powerful country attacks a weak country, it is a jihad for all Muslims," the clerics said in a statement reported by the Taliban's official Bakhtar news agency.

Dozens of U.S. warplanes were dispatched to the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, and two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups are operating in the region, with a third en route.

Officials in two Central Asian countries on Afghanistan's northern border, however, denied today that U.S. warplanes would be allowed to strike Afghan targets from bases on their territory. Defense Department officials had stated Wednesday that the United States had been given permission to operate out of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but those countries insisted no agreements had been struck with Washington.

Pentagon officials said they hoped to keep their operations in Tajikistan secret by locating the U.S. warplanes in remote airfields to permit the Tajik government to deny their presence.

Iran, another Afghan neighbor, ruled out granting overflight clearance for U.S. planes. "We will never allow American airplanes to use Iranian airspace to attack Afghanistan," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told Reuters news agency.

Asefi also said Iran would not let bin Laden enter the country if he left Afghanistan.

The Afghan clerics' decision to urge bin Laden to leave, which was reached at the end of a two-day meeting of almost 1,000 senior religious leaders, appeared to be a compromise between hard-liners ready to go to war to defend him and those who want to prevent a devastating U.S. assault.

"We wanted to find a solution that would save our country and solve the problem of our guest," one cleric, Mohammed Naseer, told the Associated Press.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Abdus Sattar, whose government tried this week to persuade the Taliban to surrender bin Laden, said that "given Afghanistan's cultural traditions, asking a guest to leave is a very significant step, but not a giant one." Sattar urged, however, that the decision "be given due weight."

But diplomats and analysts who monitor the Taliban said the clerics' request was implausible. It is difficult to imagine, they said, any nation agreeing to accept bin Laden, a move that would almost certainly result in political and economic isolation.

"He can't go anywhere," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist and political analyst. "He will be arrested the moment he enters Iran or Pakistan or any other neighboring country."

Bin Laden "may say he is willing to go, but at the end he won't go anywhere," Yusufzai said.

Even if bin Laden did leave or surrender, the clerics said nothing about what would be done with the hundreds of people in Afghanistan, many of them members of the Taliban, who are believed by Western intelligence officials to be part of bin Laden's network. "The Taliban cannot simply disassociate themselves from him," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of strategic and defense studies at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

The diplomats and analysts said Omar's decision on Monday to convene the clerics likely was a delaying tactic to give Taliban military units more time to prepare for any U.S. strike.

But conservative Muslim groups in Pakistan, who oppose U.S.-led efforts to strike back at bin Laden, said they were relieved by the clerics' statement. "Now it is America's turn to take a wise decision and save the region from catastrophe," said Raja Zafar ul-Haq, a leader of the Pakistan Muslim League party. "There is no longer any justification for military action."

Pakistan has offered to provide extensive support for U.S.-led anti-terrorist actions. Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has agreed to open his airspace to U.S. military aircraft and provide access to military bases for logistics teams and Special Forces units involved in possible operations in Afghanistan.

Those pledges have riled many Muslims in Pakistan, who contend that their country has an obligation to defend Afghanistan.

Hard-line Muslim groups have called for a nationwide general strike and demonstrations on Friday to protest Musharraf's promise to cooperate with the United States. About 5,000 people staged a boisterous demonstration in Karachi tonight, torching cars and shouting that they would "protect Osama with our blood."

Correspondents Pamela Constable and Molly Moore in Islamabad and special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.

2001 The Washington Post Company