- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan Islamic clerics, facing the prospect of U.S. attacks, urged Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan yesterday. The United States said the call fell short of its demands, and a Taliban official acknowledged the suspected terrorist mastermind might have problems finding another nation willing to accept him.
The clerics' statement, issued at the end of a two-day meeting of the Ulema, or council of religious leaders, set no deadline for bin Laden to depart and included a warning of a jihad, or holy war, against the United States if its forces attacked this impoverished country.
In a statement issued late yesterday through its embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, the Taliban government repeated its stand that it would not force bin Laden to leave because that "would be an insult to Islam."
Nevertheless, the clerics' statement represented the first sign that some figures in Afghan leadership wanted to compromise on the previous hard-line stance against any move to surrender bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.
"This Ulema council requests the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to persuade Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan and select a new place for himself," said the clerical statement.
In Washington, the Bush administration dismissed the clerics' decision.
"We want action, not just statements," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said. He said bin Laden must be surrendered and not given continued haven in Afghanistan or any other country.
"The sooner he leaves and is brought to justice, the better off I think the world will be," said Mr. Powell. The United States has also insisted that bin Laden's training camps be closed and his hundreds of followers driven out of Afghanistan.
The government of Pakistan, which has offered U.S. forces access to its airspace and land for an attack on its neighbor, refused to comment on the clerics' action. "We have not received an authoritative version of the decision, so we are not in a position to respond," Mohammed Riaz Khan, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Islamabad.
Religious leaders in Pakistan have called a nationwide strike today to protest the government's decision to stand by the United States in the fight against terrorism.
Already, thousands of people have taken to the streets to burn American flags and effigies of President Bush, vowing to fight a jihad against their own government if it supports a U.S. attack on Afghanistan.
The protests, many of which were small, came a day after President Pervez Musharraf delivered a nationally televised speech to rally support for his decision to give "full support" to any such attack, in effect suspending Pakistan's long-standing alliance with Afghanistan and its radical Taliban rulers.
In Kabul, a senior Afghan government official said that in spite of the clerical statement, it could take bin Laden a long time to decide where he will go.
No government could accept him without risking economic and political isolation as well as a possible U.S. attack.
That would effectively limit his options to places like Chechnya, Somalia or northern Yemen all of which are largely under the control of warlords.
"Osama has many enemies, and he must find an appropriate place to go. This is a big task, and it needs time. It must happen slowly," said Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. "The United States must not set itself and the Afghans on fire."
[The London Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that law and order was breaking down in Kabul yesterday as Taliban soldiers and poverty-stricken civilians carried out armed daylight robberies and looted houses left empty by people who have fled.
[In many areas of the Afghan capital, discipline among the Taliban appeared to be collapsing ahead of an expected American assault, the paper reported from Lahore, Pakistan.
[Tens of thousands who have fled the city for the countryside in recent days have left behind most of their possessions. Their empty houses have attracted looters.
["Armed men are entering people's homes under the guise of checking to see if they have arms, are watching a film or listening to music," said one resident of banned activities.
["The owner of the house lets them in because he has nothing to hide. Then he and the male family members are rounded up and the women are forced to hand over cash or jewelry."
[Another complained: "I have lost everything."]
The Taliban, a devoutly Muslim religious militia that controls about 95 percent of the country, has allowed bin Laden to live in Afghanistan for the last five years after the government of Sudan pressured him to leave. The Taliban leaders say they are able to convey information to bin Laden through radio communication with Taliban security personnel who travel with him.
Fahmi Howeidi, a Cairo-based source knowledgeable in Taliban affairs, described the clerics' action as "a cunning move. Now the ball is in the American court."
"It seems that the Pakistani threat was strong," he said of a message delivered to Kabul by a Pakistani delegation earlier this week. "The Taliban cannot continue [to exist] without Pakistani support," he said.

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