Afghan Clerics Urge bin Laden to Leave

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September 20, 2001

Afghan Clerics Urge bin Laden to Leave

By JOHN F. BURNS ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 20 Afghanistan's top clerics recommended today that the accused terrorist Osama bin Laden should be persuaded to leave the country, a development that the leader of Pakistan's largest Islamic party described as "a ray of hope."

The ruling, which ministers said is binding on the Taliban government, could almost certainly have been reached only with the agreement of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

But it stopped short of ordering the expulsion of Mr. bin Laden. So it was not immediately clear whether Mr. bin Laden would leave, or where he would go if he did, and whether the edict issued by the shura, or council, would satisfy United States demands.

Mr. bin Laden, who the United States has accused of being behind the terrorist attacks in the United States last week, has been given refuge in Afghanistan since he was expelled from Sudan under American pressure in 1996. President Bush has declared that he wants Mr. bin Laden brought to justice, "dead or alive."

The United States has been gathering its forces for a possible military thrust into Afghanistan, where Mr. bin Laden is known to have set up terrorist training camps and multiple hidouts in the country's remote deserts and mountains. Washington had asked Pakistan for permission to use its air space and intelligence about Mr. bin Laden to aid in any attack.

"To avoid the current tumult and also future similar suspicions," the 700 members of the high council of clerics said in the edict, or fatwa, they had recommended that Mr. bin Laden leave Afghanistan whenever possible.

Mr. bin Laden should find another place to live, said the shura, which met for two days before reaching its decision.

The council said Muslims should start a holy war if attacks were made against the Taliban's fighters, many of whom are only lightly armed.

"If in the time of an American attack, any Muslims, be they Afghans or non-Afghans, cooperate with the infidels, accomplices or spy, that person also is punishable to death like the foreign invaders," the edict said.

A possible sign of how the shura would act came Wednesday when Mullah Omar said he was ready for the Taliban to hold talks with the United States, a recommendation that was rejected by Mr. Bush.

"This can save the situation," the leader of the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami party, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, told reporters after hearing of the edict. Mr. Ahmed's party is the leading member of the 35-group Pakistan and Afghanistan Defense Council, which has called for a nationwide strike on Friday to protest possible strikes by the United States against Afghanistan.

Mr. bin Laden has not been seen since the terrorist attacks in the United States, although messages in his name that have denied his involvement have been delivered to pro-Islamic newspapers in Pakistan.

Specialists on Afghanistan have said that his options in the wake of the clerics' recommendation that he leave the country include taking refuge with his own fighters at numerous camps around the cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad, or slipping across the border into remote regions of northwestern Pakistan.

The specialists say that Mr. bin Laden's Arab followers inside Afghanistan alone number at least 3,000, many of them trained fighters, and that they might resist the clerics' decision with force. The most feared of Mr. bin Laden's units, known as the 055 Brigade, has a reputation for brutality that have made them the most feared of all the units fighting under the Taliban banner inside Afghanistan.

If Mr. bin Laden and his top associates, several of whom are also on the F.B.I.'s wanted list, were to slip into Pakistan, tracking them down might be even more difficult than finding them in Afghanistan.

The terrain in parts of Pakistan's Baluchistan and North-West Frontier provinces includes some of the most inaccessible regions in central Asia, an area of deep valleys and high mountains, with deserts to the southwest. For centuries they have been the strongholds of tribal leaders who obey no law but their own. Many of these tribal leaders have links to the Taliban and to Mr. bin Laden.

On Wednesday night Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, went on nationwide television to offer a tense, sometimes emotional defense of his decision to join the United States in the hunt for Mr. bin Laden. General Musharraf said the situation presented this volatile Muslim nation of 140 million people with its gravest crisis in the 30 years since it lost its last major war, with India.

"Trust me," he said in a 20-minute speech.

He made no mention of United States ground troops or special forces' using air bases in Pakistan, a possibility widely discussed here as close to 100 American bombers, fighters and other war planes moved toward the Middle East with their final destination unknown.

"I have fought in two wars, and by the grace of God, I have never shown any timidity," the general said, answering opponents who have accused him of weakness for bowing to intense American pressure for Pakistan to be used in any American military operation.

The speech had nervous Pakistanis stopping in bazaars, airports and hotel lobbies to crowd around television sets, eager to hear the general explain why he had promised President Bush "full support" for an American military operation.

That support has already carried a high political price. Islamic militant groups linked to Mr. bin Laden and some political parties have promised to do everything possible to disrupt an American military venture involving Pakistan.

Militants have held noisy protests in dozens of cities and towns, burning Mr. Bush in effigy and promising a "holy war" against any American troops setting foot here. The possibility that American pressure could destabilize Pakistan or even throw the country into chaos appeared real.

The speech appeared intended to buy time by suggesting that American action was not imminent and to rally support by stating that if Pakistan did not back the United States, its rival, India, would exploit the situation. Speaking of India, a country with which Pakistan has a deep conflict over Kashmir, General Musharraf said, "They want to enter into any alliance with the United States and get Pakistan declared a terrorist state."

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 1,500-mile border of deserts and mountains. Some of Pakistan's major air bases lie 10 or 15 minutes' flying time from possible targets around major Afghan cities.

Even as the Pentagon moved additional combat aircraft and ships into the region, it was unclear how far off any American assault might be.

General Musharraf, evidently marked out as a major partner in any strike, said that based on what Pakistan knew, "the American plans are not ready" and had not reached the point where details of Pakistan's involvement have been discussed.

The general, who took power in a coup less than two years ago, said that for him "Pakistan comes first, and everything else second." It was that approach, he added, that had led him to choose cooperation with the Americans, with its risks of domestic upheaval, over defiance that might have made a pariah of Pakistan.

Pakistan has sought to have sanctions against it erased, and the United States plans to make its case for lifting sanctions this week, congressional officials in Washington said.

General Musharraf's assertion that his air force had been put on its highest state of alert to guard against a possible Indian attack on nuclear sites appeared to alarm Mr. Bush. In two hours, Mr. Bush told reporters in the Oval Office that in the diplomacy surrounding the terrorist attacks "we will work with Pakistan and India to make sure that that part of the world is as safe as we can possibly make it."

General Musharraf said his military delegation to Afghanistan returned from talks with Mullah Omar and others on Tuesday night with a rejection of the American demand that they surrender Mr. bin Laden to face trial for terror acts and interrogation as Washington's "prime suspect" in the attacks last week.

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/20/international/20CND-PAK.html?pagewanted=print



-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 20, 2001


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