ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Faced with the threat of an American military strike, Afghanistan's senior Islamic clerics recommended yesterday that the ruling Taliban persuade accused terrorist Osama bin Laden to leave the country.
The clerics' decision was an attempt by the Taliban to meet U.S. demands to hand over bin Laden, whom the United States has accused of being behind terrorist attacks in New York and Washington last week.
U.S. officials have sought bin Laden's unconditional surrender and rejected the clerics' ruling as insufficient. The United States has also demanded that bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan be closed.
"We want action, not just statements," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in Washington. He said bin Laden must be surrendered and not allowed to leave Afghanistan for protection in another country. "The sooner he leaves and is brought to justice, the better off I think the world will be."
The Taliban's decision came nearly a full day before President Bush, in an address to Congress, singled out the regime as an enemy of the United States and warned that there would be no negotiations over bin Laden's fate.
Until yesterday, the Taliban had described bin Laden as an honored guest and scorned the notion that he could have been involved in the terrorist attacks against the United States. The council of religious leaders, the Ulema, met for at least two days to consider the U.S. demand.
"Afghanistan's Ulema is sad over the losses in the United States and hopes that the United States will not launch an attack on Afghanistan, and that the U.S. will show patience and flexibility and will take more time to properly investigate the incident," the clerics said in their decree.
"This Ulema council requests the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to persuade Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan and select a new place for himself," the clerics said.
Government officials in Pakistan said they were surprised by the announcement and portrayed it as a move toward compromise.
"Given Afghanistan's cultural traditions, asking a guest to leave is a significant step, but not a giant step," said a senior official, referring to the Taliban's majority Pashtun culture, which places great value on hospitality.
"This is a major development," said another government source, calling the statement a "face-saving" measure. "I think they realize the gravity of the situation."
Pakistani officials had traveled to Afghanistan this week to warn the Taliban that they face the choice of either giving up bin Laden or feeling the wrath of the world's most powerful military.
In their decree, the clerics said that if the United States attacks Afghanistan, "it will amount to an act against Islam," and that the Taliban would respond by declaring a holy war against the United States.
If bin Laden wanted to leave, he would likely not be welcomed by any of Afghanistan's neighbors, out of concern that they would then face a U.S. demand for his surrender. His departure also would not eliminate his organization's training camps, or the several hundred people in Afghanistan believed to be part of his Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Officials in Pakistan meanwhile prepared for a threatened nationwide strike today, called by conservative Muslim clerics opposed to Gen. Pervez Musharraf's pledge of support to the United States. Pakistan is one of only three countries, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that recognize the Taliban government.
Pakistani troops surrounded the airport in the southern city of Karachi yesterday, in expectation of a strike. Local police added security details to foreign consulates and businesses as 3,000 Islamic militants took to the streets there.
"We have comprehensive arrangements to protect the diplomats and foreign consulates," said Syed Kamal Shah, the head of police in Sindh province. "We hope there will be no mob violence and no suicide attacks in Karachi."
In the city of Peshawar, on the northwest border with Afghanistan, hundreds of demonstrators shouted, "Long live Osama bin Laden," and burned effigies of Bush.
The scene was more subdued in the capital, Islamabad. Police with shotguns manned roadblocks on the way to the U.S. Embassy.
Support for the Muslim clerics' call for a strike seemed tepid in some areas. In Rawalpindi, some merchants said they planned to defy the strike and stay open on Friday, the traditional Muslim day of rest in all but Pakistan's major cities.
Nadeem Ramzan, who sells video games from Nadeem Electronics in the city's Rajabaza bazaar, said he could not afford to shut down because business is already poor. A 32-year-old father of three, Ramzan ordinarily earns $12 a day, but his income has dropped to $6 since the attack nine time zones away in the United States.
"When we heard American [military] forces were coming to Pakistan, people started to think, 'We'll save and we'll not spend money,'" said Ramzan, standing beneath a whirring ceiling fan in his tiny stall. "We are a small, local business. We can't afford to waste an hour."
Ramzan said he had no interest in demonstrating against the government's support for the United States. The choice between backing the Musharraf government or defending his Muslim brothers in Afghanistan against U.S. attack was an easy one, he said.
"The first choice is Pakistan," said Ramzan.