UNITED NATIONS — Sudan generated little support in the Security Council on Monday for its demand that the United Nations investigate the U.S. missile attack last week that destroyed an alleged chemical weapons factory in the Sudanese capital.
The council put off a request by the Sudanese government, backed by the Arab League and the Group of Islamic States at the United Nations, for an urgent meeting to condemn the attack and launch an inquiry into U.S. assertions that the facility was manufacturing elements used in the deadly nerve gas VX.
The move is part of Sudan's campaign to sway world opinion behind its claim that the plant was wrongly targeted and made only antibiotics for human and veterinary use. Sudanese officials have called on the Clinton administration to make public any evidence it has that the facility was making chemical weapons on behalf of the terrorist organization of Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who the U.S. holds responsible for the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In response to mounting pressure on the United States that it prove its case, a senior U.S. intelligence official said Monday that the decision to bomb the Shifa Pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum was based in part on evidence derived from soil samples obtained by a clandestine agent.
The soil samples, acquired several months ago from one or more locations around the plant, provided "clear evidence" of a nerve gas precursor called O-ethylmethylphosphonothioic acid, the official said.
The chemical "is a known nerve agent precursor and an indicator for [the nerve gas] VX," the official said. "It has no known commercial application. It is not found in nature. And it is not a byproduct of other processes. By the time you've got that, you're well on your way toward VX."
The official would not divulge details of the clandestine operation that provided the samples, but said the CIA had been concerned about the plant for several years. The agency has been aware of ties between the plant and Bin Laden, various terrorist groups, the Sudanese government and other countries, including Iraq. The links included an association with Emad Ani, known as the "father" of Iraq's chemical weapons program, the official said.
In addition, the CIA had received intelligence indicating that Bin Laden, when he was residing in Sudan, had sought to acquire chemical weapons. But agency officials were not certain whether Bin Laden was currently doing business with the plant.
Although it is an essential raw material for a deadly nerve agent, the precursor chemical detected in the soil samples is "very stable," the U.S. official said. "We are told you can even eat the dirt and suffer no ill effects."
As part of the Sudanese government's public relations effort, meanwhile, Western journalists were given access to the bombed-out factory and were shown prescription drugs described as having been manufactured there.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir also told a news conference in Khartoum on Monday that the Clinton administration had been misled about the plant by Sudanese dissident groups on Washington's payroll. And Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, on an official visit to Iraq, suggested that former President Carter could head the U.N. inquiry into the U.S. attack.
Sudan did win backing Monday from the 22-member Arab League, meeting in Cairo, which unanimously condemned the U.S. attack as an "act of aggression" and called on the Clinton administration to refrain from action that could "cause public anger" in the Arab world.
Prior to Monday's action, most Arab states had remained silent about the missile strikes Thursday on Sudan and sites in Afghanistan or had issued carefully worded statements that did not directly criticize the U.S.
Although the Arab League statement endorsed the Sudanese call for a U.N. investigation of the bombing, that proposal stalled Monday in the Security Council session. Bahrain, the only Arab country currently on the 15-member council, did not press for immediate action, according to several sources in the closed-door session. Bahrain's moderate government is closely allied with the U.S., and the island emirate serves as a base for U.S. warships that patrol the Persian Gulf.
Monday's decision permits the council to revive the issue if Sudan can drum up more support, or let the proposal quietly die.
U.S. delegate Peter Burleigh brushed aside Sudan's request for an investigation and repeated earlier assertions that Washington has compelling evidence that the bombed-out plant was involved in chemical weapons production.
David Schenker, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that on several occasions in recent years, the United States has launched retaliatory military strikes without offering documentation to the international community.
This was the case when the U.S. struck Libya in 1986 to retaliate for the bombing of a German disco that killed an American GI; and when it struck Syrian positions in Lebanon after the 1983 terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, he said.
At the daily State Department briefing, spokesman Robert Foley said the U.S. is "very confident we've struck the right place."
He said it was altogether possible that the pharmaceutical plant was producing medicines or other benign substances. But, "that in no way contradicts our assertion that the facility was also producing precursor chemical weapons," Foley said.
Turner reported from the United Nations and McManus from Washington. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Rebecca Trounson in Jerusalem, and correspondent Aline Kazandjian in Cairo, also contributed to this report.