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Clerics suggest polite partingAfghan clerics today sprang a surprise by recommending that Osama bin Laden should be asked to leave the country, fuelling speculation that the move could be aimed at buying time and delaying a possible US attack.
Washington rejected the overture and demanded that bin Laden, prime suspect in last week�s attacks on the US, be turned over to responsible authorities.
�It does not meet America�s requirements,� said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. �This is about much more than one man being allowed to leave voluntarily, presumably, from one safe harbour to another safe harbour.
�It is time for action, not words. The President has demanded that key figures of the al Qaida terrorist organisation, including Osama bin Laden, be turned over to responsible authorities and that the Taliban close terrorist camps in Afghanistan.�
Pakistan�s foreign minister Abdul Sattar said: �It is a significant but not a giant step�, referring to the decision of the shura, or the clerics� council, that met in Kabul. �A new element has entered,� Sattar said.
It was not clear what he meant by this but the council�s recommendation could represent another step in the gradual climbdown by the Taliban, starting with their earlier acceptance of the possibility that bin Laden might be responsible for the attacks.
This perceived softening has coincided with a huge military buildup by the US that has now been officially named Operation Infinite Justice . US and British warplanes today bombed air-defence systems in southern Iraq but the Pentagon said the raids were unrelated to America�s war on terrorism.
President George W. Bush will address a joint session of Congress later and is expected to urge Americans to be vigilant and patient as the US prepared to strike its first blow in what he has called the first war of the 21st century.
Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, whose daughter is married to bin Laden, now has to decide if he will accept the clerics� recommendation. Taliban education minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said Mullah Omar was likely to accept the edict.
The clerics gave no deadline. �This shura demands from the Islamic Emirate (of Afghanistan) that Osama bin Laden should voluntarily leave for a place of his choice at an appropriate time.�
How will the world�s most wanted man slip out of Afghanistan? Certainly not in a taxi, said the education minister in a rare moment of humour. �He will look and choose a suitable place for himself. It can�t be that he goes out on the street and embarks in a taxi to go to another roundabout,� Muttaqi said.
An official of the group opposed to the Taliban dismissed the clerics� recommendation as unreliable. �If you ask tomorrow: �Taliban, where is Osama bin Laden?� they will say: �He did not leave voluntarily. We gave him a chance to leave and he did not leave�,� Soleh Muhammad Registani, of the Northern Alliance, said.
The clerics� council threatened to declare a jihad if the US attacked Afghanistan but hoped this would not happen. The edict criticised Bush for offending Muslims by referring to his campaign against extremists as a �crusade�.
In Islamabad, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban�s deputy ambassador to Pakistan, said bin Laden was ready to be tried if Washington could produce evidence linking him to the attacks. Shaheen said bin Laden could be tried in Kabul or in another Muslim country.
The edict from Kabul issued a blunt threat to Pakistan. �If in the time of an American attack, any Muslim, be they Afghan or non-Afghan, cooperates with the infidels, accomplices or spies, that person also is punishable by death like the foreign invaders,� it said.
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Twenty-three years ago, the Americans had acted to stop Pakistan�s nuclear programme only to similarly roll back that policy after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
Sanctions against India will be withdrawn too, but the motivation for the waiver, even as the US is in the midst of war efforts, has been the sudden warming of ties between Washington and Islamabad.
The proposal on Capitol Hill for more than a year has been to waive the nuclear-related sanctions on India. Pakistan has always been an after-thought and American lawmakers were divided on applying the waiver to Islamabad.
But yesterday, Congressmen and Senators were outdoing one another in seeking an end to sanctions on Pakistan so that America could show its gratitude to General Pervez Musharraf for his total support to the US.
President George W. Bush also joined in the show of gratitude. At a meeting with leaders from the Senate and the House of Representatives shortly after Musharraf�s address to the nation, Bush said: �There is no question that President Musharraf has taken a bold position, which is to say he will work to the extent he can with America and our allies as we deal with the prime suspect in the case. And we appreciate so very much his statement of support.�
Bush was patronising when he said about the Pakistani dictator: �I said we will give the President a chance to perform, and I believe he has done � done so.�
For India, what Bush then said was pregnant with room for concern. Pakistan has been asking for American intervention on Kashmir to the point where it has said a nuclear war may result unless the dispute between India and Pakistan is solved.
�Let me say that, in terms of foreign policy and in terms of the world, this horrible strategy has provided us with an interesting opportunity,� Bush said.
�One of the opportunities is in the Middle East. I am pleased with the fact that Chairman (Yasser) Arafat and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have taken positive steps towards bringing peace to the region. I think we have an opportunity to refashion the thinking between Pakistan and India. I think there�s some interesting opportunities to shake terrorism loose from sponsor states.�
Bush promised to �work and consult closely with Pakistan and India to make sure that that part of the world is as stable as can possibly be stable.�
He added: �And this government, working with Congress, are going to seize the moment. Out of our tears I said I see opportunity, and we will seek opportunity, positive developments from this horrible tragedy that has befallen our nation.�
The meeting between administration officials and Congressional heavyweights today will only discuss proposals for withdrawing the sanctions.
Sources here insisted that there was no final decision yet and that the administration will be guided by the response from Capitol Hill.
An end to sanctions will mean the US will no longer block loans and other assistance for Pakistan from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
This was one of the demands which Islamabad was reported to have made when Washington approached Musharraf for help in capturing Osama bin Laden. Other demands included keeping India and Israel out of any anti-terrorist coalition.
Both here and in New Delhi, the US has vehemently denied that Pakistan put any conditions for its support to the US.
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