KHARTOUM, SUDAN — The Sudanese taxi driver mulled over the nationality of his passenger for a moment, then leaned close and said in a throaty whisper:
Sudan's official policy could hardly be described as pro-American. It has been even less so since US cruise missiles destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum Aug. 20 in retaliation for the bomb attacks on two US embassies in East Africa.
But the US strike was a particular surprise to Sudanese officials. For two years, they say, they have been quietly trying to "build bridges" with Washington and rid Sudan of its image as a terrorist state.
So far, those efforts have been rebuffed. Instead, the Clinton administration openly supports what it calls "front-line states" that have vowed to topple the Islamic regime of President Omar al-Bashir. American sanctions were imposed on Sudan last November.
The moves have led Sudanese officials - and many outside analysts, including former US President Jimmy Carter - to conclude that
The official US view is that Sudan still harbors terrorists and that it is not yet the time to build bridges.
Washington's own undeclared policy is to back the rebels in the south and to overthrow the regime.
"We are sincere - we want to have normal relations with the West," Sudan's Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said in an interview. "But there must be a change of attitude, especially of the US toward Sudan. We've done as much as we can do."
On this point, "it doesn't seem [the Sudanese] changed course, but they trimmed the sails a little bit to be more attractive,"says I. William Zartman, director of African Studies and Conflict Management Programs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
"Sudan is eager to get the US off their back but they are also eager to remain true to their calling, which is to make an Islamic state."
As for the view that Washington's unstated policy is to overthrow Sudan's regime, Professor Zartman says: "Maybe they do not say that on the seventh floor of the State Department or the White House but that is an accurate reading. ... The US is looking at this dilemma, and they do not think that our US goals can be met by this [Sudanese] government."
Sudan has invited UN, American, and other teams to investigate the wreckage of the factory, to disprove US assertions that the site produced chemicals to make deadly VX. On Wednesday US Defense Secretary Cohen said that, before the strike, the US was unaware that the plant made medicines - but that the strike was justified by information that it did produce a VX ingredient.
The missile strike coincided with another on training camps in Afghanistan, believed to be run by the chief suspect in the East Africa bombings, Osama bin Laden.
US officials in Washington are skeptical of Sudanese "bridge-building," saying that Sudan still "harbors" terrorists and has earned its place on the State Department's list of terrorist states.
Mr. Ismail argues that Sudan has, in fact, "cleaned up its act."
"The government does not know of any Arab citizen involved in terrorism in Sudan - Sudan is clean," he says. "But, if any country has any information about it, we are ready to give them all the facilities to arrest them."
Ismail notes that, under pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia in 1996, Sudan forced Mr. Laden to leave the country. Training camps were shut down, he says, and new visa restrictions squeezed groups that considered Sudan a safe haven.
Sudan has yet to comply, however, with US Security Council resolutions requiring the extradition of three suspects in the 1995 assassination attempt against Egypt's President Mubarak. Ismail says they left Sudan long ago.
President Bashir has sent five letters to President Clinton in the past two years, Ismail says, to make clear that Sudan was "ready for a dialogue and to make peace" with the US. None has been answered.
Instead, beginning in February 1997, the US sent $20 million worth of "nonlethal" military aid to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, which included radios, boots, backpacks and tents, to help them "contain Sudanese-sponsored insurgencies."
Khartoum, in its turn, accuses Ethiopia and Eritrea of sending troops into Sudan, and Uganda heavily backs the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in its fight against the north.
Peace had looked promising. Though dismissed as a trick by some southern rebel leaders, Khartoum for the first time earlier this year agreed to a peace plan to end 15 years of civil war by accepting a referendum on self-determination-or even complete secession-of the south.
Led by John Garang, the SPLA has fought against the imposition of sharia , Islamic law, by the mostly Arab north on southern areas populated by Christian and animist Africans.
Today Mr. Garang controls much of the south, and some attribute his unwillingness to consider Khartoum's peace deal a function of his military strength - and of indirect US support for his mission.
For some the US policies add up to an undeclared US aim of toppling the regime.
Former President Carter, who has attempted to mediate a peace here for almost a decade, wrote in a private letter last May to an American visitor to Sudan: "We have never been assisted or encouraged by the US government but frequently found ourselves and later other peacemakers criticized and obstructed."
"Although it is denied officially, I am convinced that the official policy is to support the revolutionaries, overthrow the Sudan regime in Khartoum, and to discourage any effort to do otherwise," Mr. Carter wrote. A copy of the letter was acquired by the Monitor, though The Carter Center in Atlanta says it was not necessarily meant to be made public.
Carter notes that "Sudan undoubtedly supports the Lord's Resistance Army in its brutal forays into Uganda, continues the war, and is also guilty of serious human rights abuses."
But southern rebels "have been guilty of the same level of abuse," he writes. "American ambassadors who have served in Khartoum agree with my basic assessment."
A US official in Washington counters that toppling the Sudan government has "never been our policy," and that aid to neighbors is benign
."This is not aid you give to proxies if you want them to overthrow the government," the official says. "Aid is given to the 'front-line states' to counter the repressive machinations of the government of Sudan. Certainly you can't link that to any effort on our part to overthrow the Sudanese government."
Any such policy of subverting a foreign government, by US law, requires a presidential "finding." None toward Sudan is known to have been approved, though officials make no secret of their wish to increase pressure on the regime.
In Khartoum, however, analysts say that changes in Sudan's leadership may signal a genuine policy shift. Some top-level elements now argue for a "normalization with everyone."
Extensive famine in the south has attracted a parade of ranking foreign officials. The US missile strike, too, helped boost Sudan's case, since it was widely seen in European capitals as a mistaken target that destroyed up to half of Sudan's pharmaceutical-making capacity.
Senior US officials assured Khartoum after the US missile strike that it was not aimed at Sudan's government or its people.
But Sudanese ask: If the Egyptian extremists who first claimed responsibility for the East Africa blasts were found to have been responsible, would the US fire cruise missiles against a target in Cairo, the capital of a Mideast ally?