by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
September 21, 2001
TALIBAN 'ENCOURAGE' OSAMA TO 'LEAVE OF HIS OWN FREE WILL'
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 21, 2001 (1 A.M. PST) -- Defying American demands to hand over the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a three-day meeting of Afghanistan's ruling clerical council expressed regret early Friday morning for the attacks and called on terrorism suspect Osama Bin Laden to "leave Afghanistan of his own free will" but then declared that Islamic nations must join an international Islamic jihad, 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 certain and may come within weeks unless another suspect is identified in last week's destruction of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and the Pentagon. About a dozen mullahs, members of the Grand Islamic Council of Afghanistan, joined their ambassador to neighboring Pakistan for the 40-minute press 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 against America if, as expected, the country is attacked by the United States and 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 tough, uncompromising stance, expressed in a speech to a joint session of Congeress 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 President said. "The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate."
Bush's forceful, eloquent speech was greeted with waves of cheering and applause from an audience that included British Prime Minister Tony Blair, many foreign ambassadors as well, survivors of the victims and heroic police and firemen 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 Pataki drew prolonged applause and cheers.
The decision made in Kabul was relayed to the press in Pakistan, where Muslim fundamentalists are a powerful force opposed to the decision by Pakistan's president to provide intelligence and other tactical and strategic suppport to the U.S.-led coalition.
The Taliban ambassador made a veiled threat against Pakistan, too, saying that any nation that provided intelligence to the United States concerning Afghanistan would be "guilty of murder." But the harshest warning was directed at the United States.
"If the United States attacks a Muslim nation, and the Islamic nation is unable to defend itself, jihad becomes a religious 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 produce it, and the Taliban are ready to have a trial of Osama Bin Laden,"repeating 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 Taliban at the close of a conference in Kandahar where mullahs met to decide whether 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 the mullahs explain why they were resisting an Islamic council's edict against Bin Laden and whether the Taliban would hand over Bin Laden if he was found guilty at their trial. The spokesman said they would not.