TALIBAN 'ENCOURAGE' OSAMA TO 'LEAVE OF HIS OWN FREE WILL'
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 21, 2001 (1 a.m. PST) -- Defying American dem= ands to hand over the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks on New York an= d Washington, a three-day meeting of Afghanistan's ruling clerical council = expressed regret early Friday morning for the attacks and called on terrori= sm suspect Osama Bin Laden to "leave Afghanistan of his own free will" but = then declared that Islamic nations must join an international Islamic ji= had, or holy war, against the United States if it is attacked.
With that decision, relayed through the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan= at a bizarre, chaotic press conference in Pakistan, war is now virtually c= ertain and may come within weeks unless another suspect is identified in la= st week's destruction of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and the Penta= gon. About a dozen mullahs, members of the Grand Islamic Council of Afghani= stan, joined their ambassador to neighboring Pakistan for the 40-minute pre= ss conference.
"We encourage Osama Bin Laden to leave of his own free will," aspokesman= for the council headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar said.
But probably knowing that the council's decision has not responded to = American demands that it surrender the suspect in the devastating Sept. 11 = attacks on New York and Washington, the clerics called for a holy war again= st America if, as expected, the country is attacked by the United States an= d its allies in "Infinite Justice," as the gathering coalition for America'= s war against terrorism is now formally known.
The press conference came six hours after President George W. Bush's t= ough, uncompromising stance, expressed in a speech to a joint session of Co= ngeress last night, that leaves the clerics no room to negotiate or discuss= U.S. demands. President Bush declared that the Taliban must hand over not= only Bin Laden and all of his operatives, but grant America access to his = training camps in Afghanistan.
"These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion," the preside= nt said. "The Taliban must act and act immediately. They
wi= ll hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate."
Bush's f= orceful, eloquent speech was greeted with waves of cheering and applause fr= om an audience that included British Prime Minister Tony Blair, many foreig= n ambassadors as well, survivors of the victims and heroic police and firem= en who assisted in the disaster.
Vice President Dick Cheney watched the speech from another location as= a security precaution. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. George Patak= i drew prolonged applause and cheers.
The decision made in Kabul was relayed to the press in Pakistan, where M= uslim fundamentalists are a powerful force opposed to the decision by Pakis= tan's president to provide intelligence and other tactical and strategic su= ppport to the U.S.-led coalition.
The Taliban ambassador made a veiled threat against Pakistan, too, say= ing that any nation that provided intelligence to the United States concern= ing Afghanistan would be "guilty of murder." But the harshest warning was = directed at the United States.
"If the United States attacks a Muslim nat= ion, and the Islamic nation is unable to defend itself, jihad becomes a rel= igious obligation of all Muslims," one cleric said, repeating the words of = Omar as translated by a spokesman.
Another said that "If the United States has evidence, they should prod= uce it, and the Taliban are ready to have a trial of Osama Bin Laden,"repea= ting a position that the Bush Administration has previously rejected.
The unusual press conference, which was conducted largely in Arabic for = the apparent benefit of the Arabic-speaking world, was called by the Taliba= n at the close of a conference in Kandahar where mullahs met to decide whet= her to turn over Bin Laden or ask him to leave.
During much of it, several clerics and reporters were all speaking at = the same time, producing a chaotic scene as one journalist demanded that th= e mullahs explain why they were resisting an Islamic council's edict agains= t Bin Laden and whether the Taliban would hand over Bin Laden if he was fou= nd guilty at their trial. The spokesman said they would not.