KHARTOUM, Sudan — The Bush administration has forged a close intelligence partnership with the Islamic regime that once welcomed Osama bin Laden here, even though Sudan continues to come under harsh U.S. and international criticism for human rights violations.
The Sudanese government, an unlikely ally in the U.S. fight against terror, remains on the most recent U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. At the same time, however, it has been providing access to terrorism suspects and sharing intelligence data with the United States.
Last week, the CIA sent an executive jet here to ferry the chief of Sudan's intelligence agency to Washington for secret meetings sealing Khartoum's sensitive and previously veiled partnership with the administration, U.S. government officials confirmed.
A decade ago Bin Laden and his fledgling Al Qaeda network were based in Khartoum. After they left for Afghanistan, the regime of Sudanese strongman Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir retained ties with other groups the U.S. accuses of terrorism.
As recently as September, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused Sudan of committing genocide in putting down an armed rebellion in the western province of Darfur. And the administration warned that the African country's conduct posed "an extraordinary threat to the national security" of the United States.
Behind the scenes, however, Sudan was emerging as a surprisingly valuable ally of the CIA.
The warming relationship has produced significant results, according to interviews with American and Sudanese intelligence and government officials. They disclosed, for example, that:
* Sudan's Mukhabarat, its version of the CIA, has detained Al Qaeda suspects for interrogation by U.S. agents.
* The Sudanese intelligence agency has seized and turned over to the FBI evidence recovered in raids on suspected terrorists' homes, including fake passports.
* Sudan has expelled extremists, putting them into the hands of Arab intelligence agencies working closely with the CIA.
* The regime is credited with foiling attacks against American targets by, among other things, detaining foreign militants moving through Sudan on their way to join forces with Iraqi insurgents.
Sudan has "given us specific information that is ... important, functional and current," said a senior State Department official who agreed to discuss intelligence matters on condition of anonymity. The official acknowledged that the Mukhabarat could become a "top tier" partner of the CIA.
"Their competence level as a service is very high," the official said. "You can't survive in that part of the world without a good intelligence service, and they are in a position to provide significant help."
From Khartoum the view is markedly upbeat.
"American intelligence considers us to be a friend," said Maj. Gen. Yahia Hussein Babiker, a senior official in Sudan's government.
During an interview at the presidential palace, Babiker said Sudan had achieved "a complete normalization of our relations with the CIA."
Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, who otherwise declined comment for this article, told The Times: "We have a strong partnership with the CIA. The information we have provided has been very useful to the United States."
The paradox of a U.S.-Sudanese intelligence partnership is personified by Gosh.
Members of Congress accused him and other senior Sudanese officials of directing military attacks against civilians in Darfur. During the 1990s, the Mukhabarat assigned Gosh to be its Al Qaeda minder. In that role he had regular contacts with Bin Laden, a former Mukhabarat official confirmed.
Today, Gosh is keeping in contact with the office of CIA Director Porter J. Goss and senior agency officials.
In exchange for the collaboration, which has been largely unpublicized, Khartoum wants to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It is also pressing Washington to lift long-standing economic sanctions barring most trade between the two countries.
"There can be a strong [intelligence] partnership, but there is some hesitation because the diplomatic relationship remains poor," said Gutbi al-Mahdi, a former head of the Mukhabarat and currently senior presidential advisor for political affairs.
Babiker, a former deputy director of the Mukhabarat, said the CIA was seeking to smooth the broader political relationship between the Bush administration and the Bashir regime.
The cooperation is politically delicate for both sides.
Bashir's government faces strong internal opposition -- including critics within the regime itself -- to cooperating with the U.S. Responding to an uproar over rumors of collaboration with the administration in late 2001, Bashir told a Khartoum news conference, "I swear in God's name that we have not handed and will not hand in any [terrorism suspects] to the United States."
Official acknowledgment of the relationship by Washington could also create a political backlash in the U.S.