WASHINGTON — The White House rejected a proposal by Islamic clerics on Thursday that Osama bin Laden be allowed to leave Afghanistan voluntarily. As President Bush prepared to address Congress, the Army's civilian leader said the military was bracing for "sustained land combat operations."
The clerics' suggestion that bin Laden be allowed to leave on his own volition "does not meet America's requirements," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
"It's time for action and not words."
Nine days after the suicide hijacking attacks that left more than an estimated 5,000 dead or missing in New York and Washington, Bush planned a 7 p.m. MDT address to Congress and the nation to unite Americans for a long battle.
With U.S. military forces on the move, Army Secretary Thomas E. White told reporters a deployment order signed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld includes Army as well as Air Force troops.
"We are ready to deliver it across the whole array of force structure — heavy, light, airmobile, airborne, special operations," White said.
Islamic clerics in Kabul said Thursday 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.
The statement came at the end of a two-day meeting by hundreds of Islamic clerics, or Ulema, asked by the Taliban government to decide about U.S. demands to hand over bin Laden, a Saudi exile.
The clerics' statement set no deadline for bin Laden to accept or reject the call.
In his speech, Bush will make the case against No. 1 suspect bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, officials said.
With the speech in the Capitol taking place under exceptionally tight security, Fleischer said that Vice President Dick Cheney will not attend but will remain in a secret, secure location in recognition of "the continuation of important government issues" should terrorists strike again. British Prime Minister Tony Blair will attend.
In the Afghan capital, the clerics said that the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an organization of 52 Islamic nations, should investigate claims about bin Laden's guilt and demand that U.S. forces do not put civilians at risk if they attack Afghanistan.
"Don't kill innocent people," the clerics said in their statement.
On Wednesday, officials disclosed that the Air Force is taking the first steps to dispatch dozens of warplanes to the Persian Gulf area, setting in motion "Operation Infinite Justice" for the promised war on terrorism.
Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said Wednesday, "The United States is repositioning some of its forces to support the president's goal." She would not elaborate.
Senior defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said combat aircraft, including F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles, will be preceded by Air Force airlift control teams from bases in California and New Jersey.
The airlift control teams will establish what the Air Force calls an "air bridge," coordinating ground communications to match up refueling aircraft with fighters and, later, bombers crossing the Atlantic.
It probably will take about a week to get the combat planes in position, one official said.
In the interview Thursday, White said Army special operations forces, such as Rangers and Green Berets, almost certainly will play an important role in the war on terrorism, although he declined to be specific.
"I am sure that this campaign will involve them, and they are ready to go," he said.
Some officials involved in the military planning want Bush to target Iraq, but advisers close to the president say Saddam Hussein is not an initial target.
However, the Bush administration has put the world on notice that any nation — including Iraq — harboring terrorists could be the focus of U.S. strikes down the line.
Separate from the order to send Air Force planes to the Persian Gulf area, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the ships in its battle group left their home port at Norfolk, Va., on Wednesday for a scheduled six-month deployment to the Mediterranean.
Just before the carrier left Norfolk Naval Station, the Navy secretary, Gordon England, gave the sailors a pep talk.
"We're learning once again that freedom and liberty and the American way of life are not a birthright," he said. "It is time for us to pick up the mantle to destroy terrorism and remove this cancer."
The deployment from Norfolk includes more than 15,000 sailors and Marines, including 2,100 Marines aboard a battle-ready unit known as an Amphibious Ready Group, led by the assault ship USS Bataan.
The Theodore Roosevelt battle group includes two attack submarines, the USS Hartford and the USS Springfield, both capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The Navy already has one carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf — the USS Carl Vinson — and a second, the USS Enterprise, is in the Arabian Sea to the south.