Sudan taking opportunity to improve relations with US

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Sudan is cosying up to Uncle Sam to the extent of providing the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with information on Osama bin Ladin, and offering Washington bases on its own territory to be used as airfields during the ‘war against terrorism’, according to reports citing American sources in Khartoum. Yet – despite the recent improvement in relations between the two erstwhile adversaries – Sudan is still subject to US sanctions and remains on Washington’s list of countries that “support terrorism”. Nor has it so far received any apology, let alone compensation, for the US missile attack on al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998. The Clinton administration ordered the attack after the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, linking both events to Bin Ladin.

A report in al-Hayat daily on September 24 cited US officials in Khartoum as saying that the Sudanese government has supplied information relating to Bin Ladin’s previous economic activities in Sudan, and shown itself to be “very cooperative” with the US in its ‘war on terrorism’. The Sudanese government has also agreed to grant the US “bases” to be used as “airports”, and to allow US military aircraft to fly through Sudanese airspace during the “operations expected to be launched against terrorism”, the report said. A similar report was broadcast by the BBC World Service, together with government denials.

Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper also said, in a report published on the same day, that Sudan had truly “washed its hands of its former friend Bin Ladin.” Quoting Sudanese sources in Khartoum, the report said that the government was glad to be rid of him because it was afraid of US bombing, although Bin Ladin had been ordered to leave the country under Saudi and US pressure, five years ago. But despite government sentiments, the Sudanese people as a whole have fond memories of a man who spent generously on development projects, and who tried to stand up to the Americans, the report added.

Yet another media report, quoting Sudanese sources, underlines Khartoum’s determination to distance itself from Washington’s declared enemy number one. On September 24 ash-Sharq al-Awsat daily reported strong denials by Khartoum of any links between Bin Ladin and the gum arabic industry in Sudan. The report cited sources “closely connected with the production and marketing of gum arabic in the country” as saying that there were no ties whatsoever, and “the US knows this fact”. Such false information could have been spread by “Jewish investors in the industry” who had failed in their attempt to get a slice of the Sudanese market, the report quoted the sources as saying.

Gum arabic is exported to the US under a special order exempting the industry from US economic sanctions against Sudan. The ash-Sharq al-Awsat report quoted Assam Siddique, a former economic advisor to the Sudanese president, as saying that the production of gum arabic “preceded Bin Ladin’s appearance by many years.” The former advisor’s remarks and those of the other sources cited by the report are clearly in response to a statement by a US state department spokesman, who said on September 21 that Washington was engaged in investigating “probable links” between bin Ladin and the production of gum arabic in Sudan.

The regime of general Hassan al-Bashir has already admitted by implication much of what the newspaper reports said. Dr Mustapha Osman, the foreign minister, told foreign journalists in Khartoum on September 19 that the security organisations of the two countries had been discussing for more than a year the request made by Washington for the names of “terrorist elements it considered to be present in Sudan”. He also revealed that his country and the US had been cooperating for a while in fighting ‘terrorism’, and that the two had agreed on a “practical plan”, citing as proof the presence of a CIA and FBI team in Khartoum for more than a year.

Dr Osman also revealed that his government had received “positive reactions” from the Bush administration to the “steps it has taken in the aftermath of the suicide attacks” in New York and Washington. He cited in particular a statement by Colin Powell, US secretary of defence, which described Sudan as one of the countries cooperating with Washington in fighting terrorism. One of the “steps” taken by Khartoum in response to the attacks on the US was the introduction of strict security measures at all Sudanese airports, a measure which continues to cause considerable delays in flights. Another Sudanese official also said that other measures had been taken to deny ‘terrorists’ financial facilities on Sudanese territory.

The Bashir regime, which has come under strong pressure from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to normalise its relations with Washington, is clearly now anxious to do so. Relations between the two countries first began to go sour in 1989, when Bashir toppled the pro-Western government of prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a military coup and installed a coalition government dominated by an alliance between the new president and Dr Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of the Islamic National Front. The new leadership committed Sudan to the establishment of an Islamic government and opposed the 1991 war on Iraq, thereby alienating the West and its regional proxies.

The rest is history, and Dr Turabi is now in jail while Sadiq al-Mahdi is a trusted friend of the president and continues to mediate between Khartoum and Washington, although technically he is a member of the opposition. The regime is also now welcome in pro-US Arab capitals, as Bashir’s recent state visit to Riyadh (where he was “warmly received” by King Fahd) demonstrated.

But none of this means that relations between Khartoum and the Bush administration will be warm. The US oil-companies behind Bush want a huge slice of Sudan’s oil cake, and the Church groups in the US that are allied to him support Colonel John Garang of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the so-called “Christian south”. Uncle Sam, as arrogant as ever, wants Sudan’s allegiance and resources at very little or no cost at all to himself.

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