Clerics suggest polite parting Afghan 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.