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White House rejects clerics' recommendation

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The White House rejected Thursday a recommendation by Muslim clerics that Afghanistan's Taliban leadership should ask suspected terrorist ringleader Osama bin Laden to leave the country.

"It does not meet America's requirements," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "It's time for action, not words. The president has demanded that key figures of the al Qaeda terrorist organization, including Osama bin Laden, be turned over to responsible authorities and for the Taliban to close terrorist camps in Afghanistan. The United States stands by those demands."

Muslim clerics of Afghanistan's Grand Islamic Council recommended that the Taliban leadership should persuade bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily within a suitable time frame. The Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is said to be considering the recommendation.

Observers inside Afghanistan said that Washington's reaction will likely determine whether Omar accepts the recommendation.

If Washington had indicated some willingness to accept the idea, Omar would accept it, the observers said. Otherwise, they said, Omar would likely reject the recommendation.

Afghans are bracing themselves for an attack from the United States but still show loyalty to the ruling Taliban. CNN's Nic Robertson reports (September 17)

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The clerics' statement

"We are now at a possible turning point," said a senior Taliban official.

Clerics express grief over attacks

The council -- made up of around 600 Muslim clerics -- also expressed grief over last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and urged the U.S. to be patient in its investigations.

They said the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Conference should investigate the September 11 attacks.

"The ulema [clerics] of Afghanistan voice their sadness over deaths in America and hope that America does not attack Afghanistan, exerts complete patience and accuracy and investigates the issue in its totality," the Council's statement said, Reuters news agency reported.

However, the Council warned that if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, the Taliban would call a jihad or "holy war" against the U.S. and its allies.

The fatwa, or religious edict, would still need to be approved by Mullah Omar who has the last word and can go against the council's recommendations.

The U.S. has labeled bin Laden a prime suspect in last week's attacks and has vowed to hunt him down.

The millionaire Saudi-born dissident has been living in Afghanistan for several years as a "guest" of the Taliban.

Bin Laden himself has already denied he had anything to do with the attacks and the Taliban has repeatedly said he could not have been involved in the attacks.

U.S. President George W. Bush has warned that the United States will make no distinction between those who plan terrorist attacks and those who harbor them.

The meeting of the Grand Islamic Council in Kabul came in the wake of a visit to the country by Pakistani envoys who warned the Taliban to hand over bin Laden or face the threat of military strikes by the U.S.

Pentagon sources have already told CNN that warplanes are being sent to the Persian Gulf as part of the initial buildup of forces in America's "new war" against terrorism.

Dozens of military planes will be "forward deployed" as early as Thursday, with a second order putting the number of planes at more than 100.

Stalling mechanism

The Grand Islamic Council is effectively the lawmaking body of the Taliban government which meets to debate matters of national, political or spiritual importance.

Its recommendations, including asking bin Laden to leave within a suitable timeframe, differed somewhat from the firm stance the Taliban has taken to date.

But some analysts argue the fatwa is nothing but a stalling mechanism.

"The main point is they are stalling and they'll go on stalling. I don't see that reality has yet got through," Fred Halliday from the London School of Economics told CNN.

"They haven't got the message and I doubt that they are going to."

Meanwhile, the opposition Northern Alliance told CNN that the supreme Taliban leader Mullah Omar has gone into hiding.

The alliance said it had intercepted radio traffic indicating Omar feared a U.S. attack and was now communicating with his leadership only once a day by radio.

The opposition group said it had turned over the information it had gathered to the United States.

The Northern Alliance has been engaged in a long running civil war with the Taliban and controls about 5 percent of the country, in Afghanistan's north.

On Wednesday, a statement from Mullah Omar to the Council meeting accused Washington of using bin Laden as a "pretext" to destroy the Taliban's Islamic system of government.

He repeated the Taliban's stance that it does not allow bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a base to attack anyone.

The Taliban has taken away all of bin Laden's communications systems and he is unable to contact anyone outside the country, the statement obtained by CNN said.

Mullah Omar also stressed that the Taliban does not want any trouble with the United States, who he accuses of blaming Afghanistan to cover up for the failure of its own security and intelligence that made last week's attacks possible.

After the Taliban on Wednesday also asked to begin negotiations with the U.S. concerning the fate of bin Laden, Fleischer said, "It's time for action, not negotiations." Fleischer said the Taliban have been sending "a series of messages" to the United States, "one seemingly contradictory from the other."

"So the message to Afghanistan remains loud and remains clear: Those nations who harbor terrorists will not be spared," said Fleischer.

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