Healing the breech? After several years of severely strained relations and, in some instances, open hostility between the US and Sudan, an exchange of diplomats could herald a new era of cooperation.

Author:Luxner, Larry
Position:Washington & Khartoum

If the United States had only listened to Sudan back in the mid-1990s, the tragedy of 11 September might have been avoided. So says Khidir Haroun Ahmed, the country's top diplomat in Washington.

Ahmed, in an interview with The Middle East, insists his government desperately tried to tip off the Clinton administration about Osama bin Laden's operatives in Khartoum. But US officials, who eyed Sudan with open hostility, rebuffed those efforts.

On 20 August 1998, following the devastating terrorist attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton ordered the destruction of what his advisors thought was an Al Qaeda weapons facility in Khartoum. Only after Tomahawk missiles reduced the Al Shifa facility to rubble was it learned that the factory had produced not VX nerve gas for Osama bin Laden but vaccines and medicines for the United Nations.

"Following the American bombardment of the plant, our government recalled its ambassador here," Ahmed told The Middle East. "In November 1998 the embassy was closed in a show of protest and remained so until March 2001."

By then, George W. Bush was in the White House, and Sudan--eager to have its name removed from the State Department list of states supporting terrorism--decided it was time to mend fences. Thanks to his prior experience as director of American affairs for the Sudanese Foreign Ministry in Khartoum, Ahmed, then serving as Sudan's ambassador to Japan, was chosen to reopen the embassy. He arrived in the US from Tokyo just over two years ago.

Yet because bilateral relations have not been fully repaired, 52 year old Ahmed still holds the rank of charge d'affaires rather than ambassador.

"Compared to the past, relations are certainly much better now, though they haven't yet fulfilled our ambitions," he said. "According to senior American officials, Sudan is cooperating very well with the US in two areas: the [internal] peace process and the war on terrorism. We believe these credentials should be enough to take us off the list of countries sponsoring international terrorism."

Measuring more than 900,000 square miles, Sudan is the largest country in Africa, a potentially wealthy country, with vast reserves of precious metals and possibly petroleum.

Yet other statistics tell a different story. Sudan remains on the United Nations list of the world's 48 least developed countries. A punishing civil war between the predominantly Muslim north and the animist and Christian south has raged...

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