Sudan shifts from pariah to partner

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Standing amid the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant here, an avuncular man named Idris Babiker Eltayeb has every reason to detest America. After all, the US sent 13 cruise missiles to demolish his factory in 1998, saying there was evidence it was making chemical weapons for Osama bin Laden. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year of the US cruise missile attack.]

Yet as he steps carefully between piles of twisted concrete, pointing out pieces of American missiles still lying in the dust, he's got a smile on his face - and architectural plans under his arm. He aims to rebuild the factory - and make American drugs in it. He's also negotiating with a US firm to distribute its drugs here.

His long journey from US target to budding partner mirrors Sudan's. In five years, this North African nation has gone from international pariah to tentative US antiterror ally. America is now deluging Sudan with promises of aid and invitations to the White House to sign a peace deal ending its 20-year civil war. Many here think it could be a model for Syria, Iran, and even North Korea to come in from the terror-supporting cold.

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"Sudan is a success story," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at the RAND Corporation in Washington.

People here say Sudan's metamorphosis has to do with its toning down of extremist Islam, along with the prospect of new oil revenues, domestic dissatisfaction with a dictatorial regime, the Sept. 11 attacks, and the war on Iraq.

Back in 1998, Sudan was on the international outs. The US had put Sudan on its list of terror-supporting nations in 1993. Three years later, the United Nations hit Sudan with sanctions for abetting a 1995 assassination attempt on Egypt's president, and the US added its own sanctions soon after. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year of Sudan's uneasy international relations.]

The regime, led by Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, had come to power via military coup in 1989. But a charismatic Islamic preacher named Hassan al-Turabi was seen as the real power. Mr. Turabi, who allegedly had ties to Mr. bin Laden, had been holding high-profile conferences with conservative Islamists from around the region. And the government had instituted strict Islamic law. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year that the regime came to power.]

Then came the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. US intelligence quickly fingered bin Laden, who had lived in Sudan from 1991 to 1996. The CIA provided evidence - which is still disputed - that the al-Shifa factory may have been making chemical weapons. President Clinton - in the throes of the Monica Lewinsky scandal - ordered the strike, which also targeted Al Qaeda sites in Afghanistan.

Mr. Eltayeb - who is chairman of El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries, which is owned by his cousin, a Saudi millionaire - swears the US was wrong about the factory. "I had inventories of every chemical and records of every employee's history," he says. "There were no such [nerve gas] chemicals being made here." But US officials still strongly insist the attack was justified.

Whatever the truth, Eltayeb - who is critical of the Sudanese government - was dismayed to see how the bombing helped the regime, which had been facing growing unrest.

Nonetheless, the polemics - and political dynamics - began to shift. The US bombing "played a role in the maturation of the government's thinking in terms of how they fit into the strategic realities of the world," says a senior Western diplomat in Khartoum. The government, observers say, began to see the costs of its extremism. A power struggle between pragmatists and Islamists ensued. By 2001, Bashir had imprisoned Turabi, the cleric. "When Turabi was away, it was a chance to start a new page" in relations with the Western world, says the current information minister, Al-Zahawi Ibrahim Malek.

Meanwhile, the Bush team had come into power. It was being pressured by Christian conservatives and African- Americans to try to end Sudan's 20-year civil war, a conflict between rebel southerners, who practice Christianity and traditional African religions, and northerners, who are largely Muslim. Some American groups viewed the war as Muslims inflicting "genocide" on Christians.

On Sept. 6, 2001, with big fanfare, President Bush appointed former Missouri Sen. John Danforth as his Sudan peace envoy. Five days later, as the World Trade Center smoldered, rumors swirled in Khartoum that the US was blaming Sudan - and would strike here again. "Sudan's government made a tactical decision after 9/11 that they were done with the kind of terror they'd been involved in," says John Prendergast, an Africa specialist at the International Crisis Group in Washington.

Since then, America has continued to push hard for peace, in part to stabilize a chaotic, potential terror incubator. The White House hoped to have a deal in time for Bush's State of the Union address last week. And this month, the parties signed a wealth-sharing agreement that will split oil revenues 50-50. But the talks are now stalled over three small disputed regions.

Still, many here doubt the motives behind the pro-US shift. Turabi is now an opposition leader who calls for democracy. But many Sudanese now see him as an opportunist who's not to be trusted.

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad still have offices here. And in November the US embassy closed for several days amid a "credible threat" of attack. "There is still some water here for those fish to swim in," the Western diplomat says of terror- inclined fundamentalists.

Yet analysts say the nearby war with Iraq may have reminded Bashir of his vulnerability as a Muslim dictator. There are other reasons to make peace, too. Sudan exports about 250,000 barrels of oil per day, creating about $2 billion in revenues last year. Stability could bring production up to 500,000 barrels a day.

Meanwhile, things are looking up for Eltayeb, the factory owner. As he recently milled around a reception at the elegant home of the American chargé d'affairs, eating shish kebabs and chatting with guests, he felt he - and his country - had finally been legitimized in the American realm. Speaking about the food - and the moment - he says, "It was delicious."

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