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Washington and Khartoum: Enemies no more?
The Washington Diplomat / June 2003

By Larry Luxner

If the United States had only listened to Sudan back in the mid-1990s, the tragedy of Sept. 11 might have been avoided. So says Khidir Haroun Ahmed, the country's top diplomat in Washington.

Ahmed, in a lengthy interview last month, insists his government desperately tried to tip off the Clinton administration about Osama bin Laden's operatives in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. But U.S. officials, who eyed Sudan with open hostility, rebuffed those efforts.

On Aug. 20, 1998, following the devastating terrorist attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton ordered the destruction of what his advisors thought was an al-Qaeda weapons facility in Khartoum. Only after Tomahawk missiles reduced the al-Shifa facility to rubble was it learned that the factory had produced not VX nerve gas for Osama bin Laden but vaccines and medicines for the United Nations.

"Following the American bombardment of the plant, our government recalled its ambassador here," Ahmed told The Washington Diplomat. "In November 1998 the embassy was closed in a show of protest and remained so until March 2001."

By then, George W. Bush was in the White House, and Sudan — eager to have its name removed from the State Department list of states supporting terrorism — decided it was time to mend fences. Thanks to his prior experience as director of American affairs for the Sudanese Foreign Ministry in Khartoum, Ahmed, then serving as Sudan's ambassador to Japan, was chosen to reopen the embassy. He arrived here from Tokyo just over two years ago.

Yet because bilateral relations have not been fully repaired, Ahmed, 52, still holds the rank of chargé d'affaires rather than ambassador.

"Compared to the past, relations are certainly much better now, though they haven't yet fulfilled our ambitions," he said. "According to senior American officials, Sudan is cooperating very well with the U.S. in two areas: the [internal] peace process and the war on terrorism. We believe these credentials should be enough to take us off the list of countries sponsoring international terrorism."

Measuring more than 900,000 square miles, Sudan is the largest country in Africa. It's the same size as the United States east of the Mississippi River, and five times the size of Texas. Sudan is a potentially wealthy country, with vast reserves of precious metals and possibly petroleum.

Yet other statistics tell the real story. A punishing civil war between the predominantly Muslim north and the animist and Christian south has raged since 1955, killing more than a million people, creating 4.5 million internal refugees and boosting Khartoum's capital to 6 million. Starvation is rampant, especially in the south, and Sudan remains on the United Nations list of the world's 48 least developed countries.

Between 32 million and 35 million people live in Sudan; Ahmed isn't quite sure how many, since no reliable census has been conducted in years. Around 120,000 Sudanese live in the United States. Like Egypt, its neighbor to the north, Sudan — the cradle of ancient Nubia — boasts pyramids and other archaeological treasures, yet the civil war and its reputation as a "rogue" state has kept tourists away. Ahmed himself says only five to 10 Americans visit his country per month.

"We are looking to end this civil war, and we appreciate the Bush administration for its appointment of Sen. John Danforth as a special envoy to Sudan. He has been doing extremely well," said the diplomat. "This is the first time in our history that we're very close to peace, which will allow us to tap into our vast resources."

The recent discovery of oil in western and southern Sudan has boosted optimism in this impoverished country. Oil, which now accounts for 40-45% of Sudan's foreign exchange, is already being pumped at the rate of 260,000 barrels a day and could reach 500,000 barrels a day within one year, said Ahmed.

"In fact, Sudan's oil fields were discovered by Chevron in the 1970s, but at the outbreak of this phase of the civil war, they pulled out. In the early 1990s, Chevron sold its concession to a Sudanese petroleum company and the government invited them to come back, but they refused. So Chinese, Malaysian and Canadian investors formed a consortium which started drilling new wells and adding more fields."

"We've been urging the U.S. business community to come back, and in 1998, before the bombing attack, we were on the verge of signing an agreement with Occidental Petroleum. But the Clinton administration caught a great deal of heat from human rights organizations and cancelled it. In 1997, President Clinton issued an executive order imposing sanctions and prohibiting American trade with Sudan."

In addition to oil, Sudan is also a leading producer of gum arabic, a key ingredient in processed foods; some 80% of the world's supply comes from Sudan. Gum arabic is so important, in fact, that it's the only product specifically exempted from U.S. sanctions on trade. The country also has important reserves of iron, chrome, zinc and other strategic minerals.

"Sudan has the potential to feed the entire region," said Ahmed. "We have more than 200 million acres of arable land and plenty of water. Yet we grow on only 30 million acres, with very low productivity. We've been stigmatized by this war of attrition. Peace will open up the country to international aid and investment."

Sudan's modest three-story embassy on Massachusetts Avenue — a three-story mansion with an ancient elevator and colorful travel posters of the Sahara Desert — currently houses 20 staff members, including six diplomats.

Ahmed said bilateral relations reached a low point during the late 1990s, when the Clinton administration showed "an unprofessional degree of animosity and hatred toward the Sudanese government, to the degree that they even refused to talk to us."

That attitude had serious consequences, according to Vanity Fair magazine, which noted that Osama bin Laden moved to Sudan after his expulsion from his native Saudi Arabia in 1991. The wealthy investor, who helped finance the construction of airports, highways and other infrastructure throughout Sudan, remained in Khartoum until 1996, when Sudanese authorities kicked him out at Washington's request.

"Sudan's Mukhabarat spent the early to mid-1990s amassing copious intelligence on Osama bin Laden and his leading cohorts at the heart of the al-Qaeda terrorist network — when they were still little known, and their activities were relatively limited," the magazine reported in January 2002. "Some of the files at Mukhabarat headquarters identify individuals who played central roles in the suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998; others chart the background and movements of al-Qaeda operatives who are said to be linked directly to the atrocities of Sept. 11."

Yet "from 1996 through 2000, Madeleine Albright and her assistant secretary for Africa, Susan Rice, apparently preferred to trust their instincts that Sudan was America's enemy, and so refused to countenance its assistance against the deepest threat to U.S. security since 1945."

Ahmed said U.S. policy toward Sudan is replete with intelligence screwups and instances of political considerations taking precedence over reality — with the most obvious example being the August 1998 attack against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory.

"It's now an almost established fact that it was the wrong decision," the diplomat told us. "Nobody provided concrete evidence that the pharmaceutical plant was anything but a factory for aspirin and malaria medication. A reputable group in California, the Institute for Nuclear Non-Proliferation, concluded in a 54-page statement that they found no evidence whatsoever to link that plant to chemical weapons."

For over a decade, the country has been on the State Department terrorist list, along with Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria. Yet Ahmed says "we should never have been put on that list in the first place. We never engaged in hijacking planes or killing people. We're still on the list, but if you read between the lines, the United States says that Sudan has been cooperating with the U.S. for more than three years now."

Asked about persistent allegations that Sudan tolerates the practice of slavery, Ahmed claims such reports have been taken out of context.

"We do have inter-tribal abductions, primarily in the southwestern corner of the country among Arabic-speaking nomads," he said. "In time of severe drought, there are limited sources of grass and water, so for centuries they have raided each other and abducted each other's women, children and cattle. Even during British colonial rule, they used to reconcile their differences through tribal mechanisms."

Since 1994, he said, a non-profit group, Christian Solidarity International, "has blown this out of proportion in order to gain the sympathy of Christians worldwide. They project this as if it's a deliberate policy of the Sudanese government against non-Muslim Christians in the south. But they overlook the fact that this unfortunate practice exists in many African countries."

Ahmed added that his government has formed a Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children, which is headed by a respected statesman, Ahmed el-Mufti, who reports directly to the president. "For the last three years, this committee has been working hand in hand with UNICEF," he said.

While reliable statistics aren't available, Ahmed estimates that 75% of all Sudanese are Sunni Muslims, another 20% animists and 5% Christians of different denominations. He denies that Christians suffer from discrimination in Sudan, noting that "the president has two vice-presidents, one of them a Christian Denka from the south. Our current ambassador to Congo is a Christian from Juba, and our ambassadors in Italy and Norway are both Christians."

Ahmed, who with his wife Howaida Abdulkarim Mahmoud has six children, makes no claim that Sudan is a democracy, and concedes that the country has a long way to go.

"Sudan's current government evolved from a military regime that came to power in June 1989," he said. "The former prime minister who was ousted by this government now heads his own political party, and about 10 days ago, they held their first convention in years. We have a Communist Party and at least 26 newspapers that criticize the government. Nothing happens to them, despite the fact that we have a state of emergency. Like everywhere, though, there are some things we won't tolerate, like inflaming the ethnic situation."

An example of this intolerance surfaced last month, when government officials closed the English-language Khartoum Monitor and jailed its editor for criticizing top government officials and suggesting that Muslims were still practicing slavery.

Ahmed defended his government's actions against the newspaper, saying "we suffer a lot from racial and ethnic strife, and it is not helpful for people to turn Christians against Muslims."

He added: "These people have been criticizing the government and nobody shut them down, but because of the current situation, there are some restrictions. We are a poor country with limited resources, so we have to be careful until we reach a level in which we feel there is no danger against the state itself. After the signing of a peace agreement [with the rebels] this summer, I can assure you that these emergency laws will be lifted."

The diplomat said Sudan has a dual identity, being both an Arab and an African country.

"We have stable relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world as well as neighboring countries, especially Ethiopia, to the degree that we've linked the two countries with highways, and Ethiopia has started using our seaport, Port Sudan."

What about peace with another nearby country, Israel?

"We haven't yet reached that point," he said. "But Sudan has endorsed the Arab initiative which technically recognizes the existence of the State of Israel, side by side with a Palestinian state. Muslims in Sudan have no animosity towards Jews, and we think President Bush's commitment to establish a Palestinian state opens a great window of opportunity for the region."

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