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Indicted ex-lawmaker as diplomat

Former Rep. Siljander, accused of accepting stolen USAID funds, has brokered U.N.-Sudan talks.

January 19, 2008|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — A former congressman indicted on charges that he accepted stolen money from an Islamic aid group also has acted as a broker between U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Sudan's president on Darfur, according to diplomats and the onetime representative.

"While my involvement is by no means secret, we have tried to make it private because of the sensitivities involved with the U.N. and Sudan," Mark D. Siljander wrote in an e-mail Friday. "We have made great progress, but now with my media frenzy, it will be difficult to continue."

Sudanese and international diplomats say Siljander appeared to be part of the United Nations delegation preparing for a pair of meetings last year between Ban and Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir and between other top U.N. and Sudanese officials. But U.N. officials have publicly distanced themselves from Siljander.

"He offered voluntary, informal advice," said the senior U.N. official responsible for coordinating the meetings, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That doesn't mean he is playing a role on behalf of the U.N."

Siljander, a Washington lobbyist who served in the House from 1981 to 1987 as a Republican from Michigan, was charged Wednesday with conspiring with a blacklisted Islamic aid group to launder money and lying to federal agents about it. The indictment accused him of accepting $50,000 allegedly stolen from the U.S. Agency for International Development by the Islamic American Relief Agency as payment for him getting the organization off a U.S. government list of groups that support terrorism.

The indictment says he told the FBI that the funds were a donation to help him write a book about healing religious rifts. Siljander said his book, "Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman's Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide," will be published this spring by HarperOne. Siljander denied the charges through his lawyer.

In one of his speeches, Siljander, 57, said he had cultivated Bashir's friendship for nine years. He also boasts close ties to Sudan's acting foreign minister, Ali Karti. Karti once headed the Popular Defense Force, which fought alongside so-called janjaweed militias in attacks on villagers in Darfur, according to Human Rights Watch. Siljander arranged Karti's attendance at a congressional prayer breakfast in September 2006 and has visited Sudan many times since. Karti helps arrange contacts for him, a Sudanese official said.

Sudan's ambassador to the U.N., Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, praised Siljander as "a very constructive person."

"He's doing much for the cause of peace and stability," he said. "I think he makes a lot of sense."

A Sudanese official recalled how Siljander met with Sudan's top two national security officers to offer his help getting the country off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But after the U.S. deemed the attacks in Darfur genocide, both sides dropped the idea, he said.

Several diplomats interviewed for this story said that there is a long history of using informal, or "third channel," diplomacy, and that they would not rule out using any messenger to achieve peace in Sudan. They noted that Siljander has effectively carried messages between international diplomats and the government in Khartoum.

Although the U.N. says Siljander has had no official role, he has stayed in the same hotels and rooms earmarked for United Nations delegations, and moves with U.N. officials as if he were part of the group, according to diplomats who observed such delegations.

In his e-mail, Siljander claimed partial credit for the idea of a joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force to get past Sudan's persistent objections to having U.N. troops in the country's western region of Darfur.

After initially opposing the idea, Bashir relented during a meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with King Abdullah and Ban, the U.N. chief. Siljander was in Riyadh at the time but did not attend the meeting, officials said.

Some U.N. diplomats say they are uncomfortable with Ban's office lending its mantle to an outsider, especially one who could taint the U.N. secretary-general's most valuable asset -- his moral high ground.

Freelance diplomacy also has unintended results. The hybrid U.N.-African Union force that Siljander pushed is a logistical and political nightmare for United Nations commanders, and it is unable to protect itself or civilians right now, the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief told the Security Council this month.

For some diplomats, Siljander's indictment also echoes previous incidents, such as the oil-for-food scandal that nearly brought down Ban's predecessor, Kofi Annan. Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park, Iraqi American businessman Samir Vincent and Texas oilman Oscar Wyatt have all been convicted of accepting money from Iraq to persuade U.N. officials to soften sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime.

A diplomat said Siljander, who has told colleagues that he conducts informal diplomacy "for God, not money," made his U.N. connections through the Congressional Prayer Breakfast Group.

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maggie.farley@latimes.com

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