KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Facing the prospect of U.S. attacks, Islamic clerics urged Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan. The United States said the call Thursday fell short of its demands, and a Taliban official acknowledged the alleged terrorist mastermind might have problems finding another nation willing to accept him.
The clerics' statement, issued at the end of a two-day meeting of the Ulema, or council of religious leaders, set no deadline for bin Laden to depart and included a warning of a jihad, or holy war, against the United States if its forces attacked this impoverished country.
And in a statement issued late Thursday through its embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, the Taliban government repeated its stand that it would not force bin Laden to leave because that ''would be an insult to Islam.''
Nevertheless, the clerics' statement represented the first sign that some figures in Afghan leadership wanted to compromise on the previous hardline stance against any move to surrender bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.
''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 clerical statement said.
In Washington, the Bush administration dismissed the clerics' decision.
''We want action, not just statements,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said. He said bin Laden must be surrendered and not given continued haven in Afghanistan or any other country.
''The sooner he leaves and is brought to justice, the better off I think the world will be,'' Powell said in Washington. The United States has also insisted that bin Laden's training camps be closed and his hundreds of followers driven out of Afghanistan.
The government of Pakistan, which has offered U.S. forces access to its air space and land in an attack on its fellow Muslim neighbor, refused to comment on the clerics' action. ''We have not received an authoritative version of the decision, so we are not in a position to respond,'' Mohammed Riaz Khan, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Islamabad.
Despite the clerical statement, a senior Afghan government official in Kabul said it could take bin Laden a long time to decide where he will go. No government could accept bin Laden without risking economic and political isolation as well as a possible U.S. attack.
That would effectively limit his options to places like Chechnya, Somalia or northern Yemen - all of which are largely under the control of warlords.
''Osama has many enemies, and he must find an appropriate place to go. This is a big task, and it needs time. It must happen slowly,'' Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said. ''The United States must not set itself and the Afghans on fire.''
The Taliban, a devoutly Muslim religious militia that controls about 95 percent of the country, have allowed bin Laden to live in Afghanistan for the last five years after the government of Sudan pressured him to leave. The Taliban leadership say they are able to convey information to bin Laden through radio communication with Taliban security personnel who travel with him.
In Egypt, Diaa Rashwan, a Cairo-based expert on Islamic activism, said bin Laden may already have left Afghanistan, secretly fleeing to a nearby Central Asian republic during the clerics' meeting.
One possibility could be Tajikistan, where he could hide with supporters. But Fahmi Howeidi, another Cairo-based expert, said bin Laden would have a ''big problem'' there because Afghani opposition figures are ethnic Tajik.
Howeidi described the clerics' action as ''a cunning move. ... Now the ball is in the American court.''
''It seems that the Pakistani threat was strong. Taliban cannot continue (to exist) without Pakistani support,'' he said.
On Wednesday, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is believed to have the final decision-making power, said the militia was willing to meet with U.S. officials, but he also accused Washington of unfairly vilifying bin Laden.
In a speech read at the opening of the clerics' meeting, Omar denounced the United States' portrayal of bin Laden's alleged role in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He called the U.S. actions an effort to harm the Taliban.
''Osama has denied his involvement. It is unfortunate that America does not listen to us and levels all sorts of charges and threatens military action,'' Omar said. ''We have held talks in ... the past with U.S. governments several times, and we are ready for more talks.''
The Bush administration rejected that offer, too.