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U.S. relies on Sudan despite condemning it

The nation accused of aiding the killings in Darfur provides spies in Iraq. In return, it gets access in Washington.

June 11, 2007|Greg Miller and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Sudan has secretly worked with the CIA to spy on the insurgency in Iraq, an example of how the U.S. has continued to cooperate with the Sudanese regime even while condemning its suspected role in the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in Darfur.

President Bush has denounced the killings in Sudan's western region as genocide and has imposed sanctions on the government in Khartoum. But some critics say the administration has soft-pedaled the sanctions to preserve its extensive intelligence collaboration with Sudan.

The relationship underscores the complex realities of the post-Sept. 11 world, in which the United States has relied heavily on intelligence and military cooperation from countries, including Sudan and Uzbekistan, that are considered pariah states for their records on human rights.

"Intelligence cooperation takes place for a whole lot of reasons," said a U.S. intelligence official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing intelligence assessments. "It's not always between people who love each other deeply."

Sudan has become increasingly valuable to the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks because the Sunni Arab nation is a crossroads for Islamic militants making their way to Iraq and Pakistan.

That steady flow of foreign fighters has provided cover for Sudan's Mukhabarat intelligence service to insert spies into Iraq, officials said.

"If you've got jihadists traveling via Sudan to get into Iraq, there's a pattern there in and of itself that would not raise suspicion," said a former high-ranking CIA official familiar with Sudan's cooperation with the agency. "It creates an opportunity to send Sudanese into that pipeline."

As a result, Sudan's spies have often been in better position than the CIA to gather information on Al Qaeda's presence in Iraq, as well as the activities of other insurgent groups.

"There's not much that blond-haired, blue-eyed case officers from the United States can do in the entire Middle East, and there's nothing they can do in Iraq," said a second former CIA official familiar with Sudan's cooperation. "Sudanese can go places we don't go. They're Arabs. They can wander around."

The officials declined to say whether the Mukhabarat had sent its intelligence officers into the country, citing concern over the protection of sources and methods. They said that Sudan had assembled a network of informants in Iraq providing intelligence on the insurgency. Some may have been recruited as they traveled through Khartoum.

The U.S.-Sudan relationship goes beyond Iraq. Sudan has helped the United States track the turmoil in Somalia, working to cultivate contacts with the Islamic Courts Union and other militias in an effort to locate Al Qaeda suspects hiding there. Sudan also has provided extensive cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, acting on U.S. requests to detain suspects as they pass through Khartoum.

Sudan gets a number of benefits in return. Its relationship with the CIA has given it an important back channel for communications with the U.S. government. Washington has also used this channel to lean on Khartoum over the crisis in Darfur and for other issues.

And at a time when Sudan is being condemned in the international community, its counter-terrorism work has won precious praise. The U.S. State Department recently issued a report calling Sudan a "strong partner in the war on terror."

Some critics accuse the Bush administration of being soft on Sudan for fear of jeopardizing the counter-terrorism cooperation. John Prendergast, director of African affairs for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, called the latest sanctions announced by Bush last month "window dressing," designed to appear tough while putting little real pressure on Sudan to stop the militias it is widely believed to be supporting from killing members of tribal settlements in Darfur.

"One of the main glass ceilings on real significant action in response to the genocide in Darfur has been our growing relationship with authorities in Khartoum on counter-terrorism," said Prendergast, a senior advisor to the International Crisis Group. "It is the single biggest contributor to why the gap between rhetoric and action is so large."

In an interview, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, John Ukec Lueth Ukec, suggested that the sanctions could affect his country's willingness to cooperate on intelligence matters. The steps announced by Bush include denying 31 businesses owned by the Sudanese government access to the U.S. financial system.

The decision to impose financial penalties "was not a good idea," Ukec said. "It diminishes our cooperation. And it makes those who are on the extreme side, who do not want cooperation with the United States, stronger."

But White House and U.S. intelligence officials downplayed the prospect that the intelligence cooperation would suffer, saying that it was in both countries' interests.

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