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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bin Laden Asked to Pack His Bags

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Islamic clerics urged Osama bin Laden on Thursday to leave Afghanistan voluntarily, but set no deadline for the suspected terrorist mastermind to decide. The White House flatly rejected their proposal.

The clerics said they were prepared to call for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States if U.S. troops attack Afghanistan in an attempt to capture bin Laden and his fighters, many of whom are from Arab countries and Pakistan. Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, who called the meeting of the clerics, are likely to follow its direction.

The clerics' statement appeared to be a compromise between hard-line clerics ready to go to war to protect bin Laden and those who want to rid the country of a devastating threat.

In Washington, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the proposal "does not meet America's requirements." "This is about much more than any one man being allowed to leave -- presumably from one safe harbor to another safe harbor, if what he's doing is voluntary," Fleischer said. "It's time for action not words and the president has demanded that the key figures of the al-Qaida terrorist organization, including Osama bin Laden, be turned over to responsible authorities and that the Taliban close terrorist camps in Afghanistan. The United States stands behind those demands."

It wasn't clear where bin Laden, the Saudi exile who is suspected of masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, could go. No country in the world could accept bin Laden without the threat of economic and political isolation and possible U.S. military attack. That leaves places like Somalia, northern Yemen and Chechnya, all of which are largely controlled by local warlords.

The U.S. Army's top civilian official said troops are ready to conduct "sustained land combat operations." Army Secretary Thomas White said at the Pentagon that a deployment order signed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday includes Army as well as Air Force troops. He said it was only the first step in a broader military plan that would unfold in the weeks ahead.

Rumsfeld, speaking later, would not elaborate. But he acknowledged ordering a movement of troops "to get ourselves arranged in the world ... to places that could be useful in the event that the president decided to use them."

He predicted a sustained campaign against terrorism. "It is marathon, it is not a sprint," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon briefing. "It's not easy, it's difficult. And it will certainly require the patience of all of us. And it will require a lot of international support."

The Air Force has been ordered to send a mix of aircraft to the Persian Gulf area, totaling between 100 and 130 planes, a senior defense official said Thursday. They include fighters and

B-52 bombers as well as tanker aircraft to be positioned along an "air bridge" to refuel the combat planes. "We are ready to conduct sustained land combat operations as determined by the secretary of defense and the president," White said. "We are ready to deliver it across the whole array of force structure -- heavy, light, airmobile, airborne, special operations. All of the combat capabilities."

George W. Bush's administration is still considering various options, of which a large-scale invasion of Afghanistan is considered least likely by many defense experts. Many believe the insertion of small teams of special operations forces, like Army Rangers, into Afghanistan is more likely in the effort to hunt down terrorists.

Bush planned to address Congress early Friday morning Moscow time to make his case against bin Laden and unite Americans for a long battle.

In a rare show of bipartisan unity, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said there would be no Democratic response to Bush's address.

In his address, Bush will not seek a declaration of war or announce that a military strike is under way, officials said. Instead, he will ask imploring Americans to have patience for a long, painful hunt for terrorists.

With the speech in Congress taking place under tight security, Fleischer said Vice President Dick Cheney will not attend but will remain in a secret location in recognition of "the continuation of important government issues" should terrorists strike again. British Prime Minister Tony Blair will attend.