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Sudanese factory destroyed by US now a shrine

President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike on the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998; the Sudanese still haven't forgotten.

By , Staff writer

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    Above, a Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. US cruise missiles destroyed the plant – which the US suspected of making chemical weapons – 14 years ago. Left: A label for veterinary medicine lies in the ruins of the factory
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Fourteen years after American cruise missiles destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, its ruins have been left untouched as a shrine that still rankles Sudanese.

The precision strike did its work: The buildings are pulverized, a tangle of broken concrete and iron bars; thousands of brown bottles of veterinary and other medicines lie scattered, the whole scene stained by endless sun and sandstorms.

The Aug. 20, 1998, attack was ordered by President Bill Clinton, simultaneously with missile strikes against training camps run by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, to retaliate for the dual bombings two weeks earlier at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

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Myths continue to abound, on both sides, about a military strike that wiped out Sudan's largest pharmaceutical facility, a trophy plant that specialized in anti-malaria medicines, antibiotics, and lifesaving veterinary goods – and where the British ambassador was among the dignitaries at the 1996 opening.

Debate remains unresolved in the United States, whenever it is brought up, about the wisdom of destroying the factory and whether it ever posed a threat, as Washington declared, of chemical weapons falling into terrorist hands.

Still bitterness

But in Sudan there is no such debate, just bitterness and anger at what is widely seen as an unjustified strike. Indeed, Sudanese officials at the time told this journalist visiting days after the bombing that he was free to go anywhere, and photograph anything – the first time ever under the authoritarian regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Ikram Ataib sees the ruins of Al Shifa every day that she goes to work at the furniture showroom across the street, where the plush, polished leather chairs and gleaming chrome and glass tables are a sharp contrast to the dun-colored ruins of Al Shifa.

Ms. Ataib was 9 years old when the attack took place. She heard the blasts at her family home a couple of blocks away, and said her pregnant aunt miscarried her unborn child at 5 months because she was so afraid.

"I am very, very affected," Ataib says. "Some people were angry. Some people were weeping. And the dead; until now this memory is with me. I remember the fire, the flames...."

One person died in the middle-of-the-night strike, and 10 were wounded. Afterward, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that, before the strike, the US was unaware that the plant was making medicines, even though the plant had recently signed a large US-approved United Nations oil-for-food contract with Iraq.

"I blame the United States of America," says Ataib, as if the attack had happened yesterday. "Even if they apologize, it is nonsense, because they already did what was on their minds. Now it is like a tourist site."

'A terrorist act'

Hassan al-Turabi, the firebrand preacher and speaker of parliament at the time – now he is a fierce critic of the government – told the Monitor after the attack that "Islam is now entrenched" in Sudan.

"The [US] president wanted a target, and on his list Sudan was there," Mr. Turabi said in 1998. "This is a terrorist act against Sudan, a terrorist act."

The effort to neutralize Mr. bin Laden with missiles would instead "create 10,000 bin Ladens," Turabi predicted.

Senior US officials involved in the decision to strike Sudan still stand by it, though debate took place within the US government at the time, and increased afterward, about the tenuousness of any link to the future Al Qaeda leader, and of the evidential strength of a single soil sample acquired by the CIA from outside the Al Shifa main gate – just steps away from where the furniture showroom now is.

US: VX precursor found

The Clinton administration argued that a precursor ingredient of VX nerve agent had been discovered. Intelligence reports had also emerged in previous years – before bin Laden was expelled from Sudan in 1996, under pressure from Washington – that Iraq had shifted some chemical weapons capacity to Sudan.

But notes taken of the final meeting between Mr. Clinton and top officials Aug. 19, 1998, the day before the strike, indicate that CIA Director George Tenet had said the agency was working to "close the intelligence gaps on this target," according to a 1999 report in The New York Times.

The Times also reported that, after the Sudan attack, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a senior deputy "encouraged State Department analysts to kill a report being drafted that said the bombing was not justified."

That would not be news to Kadija Osman, wife of the man who guards the broken facility today. Wrapped in an orange scarf that glows eerily during a thick sandstorm that stains the sky yellow, Ms. Osman lets her daughter play in the rubble.

"I feel very, very angry about this. It's a big wrong, a wrong attack," says Osman, whose family has guarded the ruins for a decade. "It's a big loss for Sudan. There were no chemical weapons here."

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