WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday the United States would not stand for any deal that allowed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to remain free and "live in dignity" in the region.
Asked about reports of a deal between Omar and Afghan opposition forces to surrender the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Rumsfeld said the United States has made clear to opposition forces "our very strong view on this."
"Our cooperation and assistance with those people would clearly take a turn south if something were to be done in respect to the senior people in that situation that is inconsistent with what I have said," Rumsfeld said.
Previously, Rumsfeld had said that the U.S. goal was to ensure that Taliban and Al Qaeda senior leaders were unable to continue conducting terrorist acts, and the United States wanted them brought to justice.
He also has referred to Omar as a "dead-ender" unlikely to surrender because the Taliban leader has said in the past he would fight to the death.
Rumsfeld said the United States has been providing opposition leaders in the south with much assistance, including bombing Taliban forces and supplying weapons, advisers and special forces troops to assist the fight against the Taliban.
"To the extent that our goals are frustrated and opposed, we would prefer to work with other people," Rumsfeld said.
The White House on Thursday also turned aside the idea of extending protections to Omar.
"The president believes very strongly that those who harbor terrorists need to be brought to justice," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. When asked whether President Bush believes that Omar had harbored terrorists, Fleischer replied, "Yes."
Asked further what justice for Omar would entail, Fleischer said, "The president has left that undefined."
Omar agreed Thursday to surrender Kandahar to tribal forces and put himself under the protection of tribal leaders. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed head of a new interim government, said Omar could be afforded protection, but only if he promised to "renounce terrorism."
Fleischer had no immediate reaction on the turnover of Kandahar.
"We'll be continuing, obviously, to monitor events closely," Fleischer said. "We're studying all the various statements and events on the ground, and we'll review anything as appropriate."