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Last week’s missile attack against Sudan also struck Americans like a bolt from the blue. Who knew where Sudan was on the map, let alone that it was a bitter enemy of the U.S.? Actually, the strikes were the culmination of a long struggle within the Clinton administration about how to deal with that nation’s radical regime.
Part of the problem is that the National Islamic Front (NIF), which took over Sudan in a 1989 coup, is insecure about its hold on power. To bolster its position, the NIF has tried to expand Islam regionally, backing radical Islamist (and even fundamentalist Christian) groups against most of its neighbors. At the same time, the NIF has collaborated with Osama Bin Ladin to provide sanctuary as well as training to radical Islamist groups operating worldwide.
In 1993, the Clinton administration put Sudan on the list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Since then, though, officials have quarreled over how much more they should do. Career State Department officials, led by Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, have argued that dialogue and diplomacy are the best way to change the NIF. But political appointees, led by Assistant Secretary of State Susan E. Rice (formerly with the National Security Council), have countered that the NIF will only respond to force.
Even before the East Africa bombings, the administration was moving toward Rice’s line. After Sudan had expelled Bin Ladin in May 1996, in response to Saudi and American pressure, Pickering argued that it was time to re-open the American Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan (The embassy had been closed since February 1996 because of terrorism fears). But NSC officials, including Rice, thought it should stay shut. In September 1997, while Rice was on maternity leave, Pickering tried what one diplomat calls a “squeeze play.” Without White House authorization, Pickering told his subordinates to leak to the press that the administration would soon reopen the embassy. But a week later, after the news had been reported in both The Washington Post and The New York Times, Rice’s allies at the NSC got the announcement over-ruled. “Albright called Pickering and told him to call the reporters back,” recounts another seventh-floor official.
So the U.S. mission to Sudan remained in Nairobi — bin Laden’s eventual target. And it soon became the site of the largest CIA station in East Africa — a station that coordinates a sophisticated eavesdropping network aimed at Sudan with the cooperation of bordering countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda, which form a coalition of frontline states against the NIF.
The United States’ goal has not merely been to gather information. For at least two years, the Clinton administration has been trying to undermine, if not overthrow, the NIF regime. ‘We want to compel change in how Sudan is governed,” one White House adviser told me in May. Toward that end, the adviser added, last year, the administration promised the anti-NIF states $20 million in nonlethal aid. According to a high level participant, the administration recently sent an interagency team to Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to explore “humanitarian, development, political, diplomatic, military, and intelligence options.”
The United States’ interest in undermining the NIF is due to more than the regime’s support of Bin Ladin. One of the NIF’s closest foreign allies has been Iraq. According to a former Sudanese army captain who defected to rebel forces, up to 60 Iraqi military specialists rotate through Sudan every six months.
Why is this significant? The ex-captain said some of the Iraqis were involved in some kind of munitions development at the Military Industries Corporation in Khartoum. And Sudanese opposition leaders have long claimed Iraq was helping Sudan develop chemical weapons at installations in Khartoum. They further charge that Sudan has stored chemical weapons for Iraq at a military complex south of Khartoum.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials say soil samples collected outside the pharmaceutical factory targeted in the strike contained traces of a chemical that is an ingredient of VX nerve agent and lacks any known industrial application. Furthermore, The New York Times reported that Iraq bought medicines from the factory and that, according to U.S. officials, one of the leaders of Iraq’s chemical weapons program had close ties to senior Sudanese officials there. Finally, non-American officials told the Times that Iraqi technicians frequently visited another, more heavily guarded factory in Khartoum also suspected of producing chemical weapons.
Of course, these are still allegations. Some of the Sudanese opposition’s other claims — like the story that Iraqis who hijacked a plane to London in 1996 were involved in the chemical weapons program — are clearly preposterous; the hijackers were draft-dodgers. Nor is the evidence cited by U.S. officials necessarily irrefutable. For instance, a British engineer who, until 1996, worked as a manager at the factory targeted in the strike recently told the London Observer that the factory “just does not lend itself to the manufacture of chemical weapons.”
Still, Iraq and Sudan are clearly up to something. Just consider the Sudanese foreign minister’s first reaction to the U.S. strikes: he flew to Baghdad. ”