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World Perspective | SUDAN

Nation Seeks to Shed Image, Join America's Roster of Allies

March 24, 2000|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — Less than two years ago, the United States lobbed Tomahawk missiles at Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Now the Sudanese are firing back--with bouquets.

Long viewed by the U.S. as a fundamentalist Islamic state that has given aid and comfort to leading terrorists, Sudan--a vast, unruly nation riven by civil war--has undergone a political transformation in the past three months.

Its leading firebrand, National Islamic Front founder Hassan Turabi, had his wings clipped in December by President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir. Now Bashir, aided by a newly supportive Egypt, is reaching out to Washington to try to persuade the Clinton administration to move Sudan from the list of perceived U.S. foes to its list of friends.

In this, Sudan is part of a strong trend in Africa and the Middle East: The United States seems to be fast running out of enemies.

First it was Iran, where two years ago moderate President Mohammad Khatami called for a dialogue of cultures to break down the wall of mistrust. The United States reciprocated last week, announcing that it will lift some of its sanctions on Iran and promising to work to restore seized Iranian assets.

Last year, Libya surrendered two suspects for trial in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and began pushing for normalized relations with Washington.

Libya also expelled the Abu Nidal group, a Palestinian guerrilla organization. U.S. officials called the expulsion "a serious, credible step" by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

Syria also is working to patch up its troubled relationship with Washington. The government has reined in Palestinian factions based in the capital, Damascus, and President Hafez Assad will meet Sunday with President Clinton in Geneva amid signs that the Syrian leader may be moving toward a historic accord recognizing the state of Israel.

In the region, only Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remains an out-and-out pariah, mainly because the United States regards him as irredeemable.

In Sudan, the catalyst for improving ties with the U.S. was Bashir's December dissolution of the Turabi-controlled parliament when it was preparing to pass laws to curtail the Sudanese president's prerogatives. The move put Bashir in charge of what had been a duopoly of power for the past decade.

Egypt has long blamed the Sorbonne-educated Turabi for the excesses of Islamic extremism in Sudan, while Bashir--although an Islamist as well--is seen as more moderate and accommodating to other countries in the region and to pluralism within Sudan.

A visit to Khartoum this month by U.S. special envoy Harry A. Johnston, a retired Florida congressman, did much to clear the air between the two countries, according to Ibrahim Ahmed Omar, a senior advisor to Bashir, in a telephone interview from Khartoum. It was the highest-level contact between the U.S. and Sudan since the August 1998 missile strike against the African nation.

Johnston raised issues of "human rights, peace, relief and, for sure, bilateral relations," Omar said, adding that the government also facilitated meetings between the U.S. envoy and Sudan's opposition groups.

Even before moving against Turabi, Bashir was sending feelers to factions in the National Democratic Alliance, the league of rebel groups fighting the Sudanese army in a 17-year civil war that has cost more than 2 million lives, mainly due to starvation. With the government's promises of greater freedom, one significant group, the Umma Party, has agreed to come in from exile.

Egypt, once one of Sudan's strongest critics, is acting as a go-between for Bashir in the international arena. According to Omar, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has promised to raise the topic of rehabilitating Sudan when he meets with Clinton in Washington next week. That is a significant endorsement, given that Mubarak had accused Sudan of harboring the assassins who attempted to kill him during a 1995 visit to Ethiopia.

The 1998 U.S. missile strike was in response to the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that the administration blamed on suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan-based network.

The missiles flattened a pharmaceutical plant that U.S. officials said was being used for chemical weapons, an allegation that Sudan denied.

Omar said that it might take a while before the U.S. and Sudan can trust each other again but that "the fact that we are talking to each other is good."

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