September 20, 2001 08:43 AM

• As America prepares for battle, Islamic clerics on Thursday urged terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden to voluntarily leave Afghanistan, where he and his followers have had sanctuary for five years, the Taliban news agency said. • The statement carried by the Bakhtar news agency came at the end of a two-day meeting by hundreds of Islamic clerics who were called to Kabul by the Taliban government to decide about U.S. demands to hand over the Saudi-born suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America. • The clerics’ statement set no deadline for bin Laden to accept or reject the call, and it was unclear whether this would be enough to dissuade President Bush from launching massive military strikes against the impoverished Central Asian nation of Afghanistan. • On Wednesday, the U.S. Air Force laid the groundwork for dispatching dozens of warplanes to the Persian Gulf area, setting in motion “Operation Infinite Justice” for the promised war on terrorism. • President Bush will address a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress on Thursday to urge Americans to be vigilant and patient as the United States prepares to strike the first blow in what he has called the first war of the 21st century. He is also expected to outline the case against Osama bin Laden, say reports. • “I think the president is going to use this as an opportunity to talk about the sustained nature of this campaign,” White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said. “I think he will use it as an opportunity to urge patience and reason, and to demonstrate again that his resolve is going to be over a long period of time, not in a single moment.” • In the wake of the attacks of last week, Wall Street resumed its slide on Wednesday to three-year lows, major stock markets in Asia weakened on Thursday (despite efforts by central banks around the world to bolster confidence by cutting interest rates). Stocks in London on Thursday were weak in early trading. President Bush is said to be looking at ways to save the economy from slumping further.

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