PARIS â€” Once home to Osama Ben Laden, Sudan is an invaluable ally in the US-led war on terror but the cooperation may be allowing Khartoum to resist pressure to end the bloodshed in Darfur, experts say.Sudan bowed to US demands to expel the Al Qaeda leader in 1996 and has since offered vital assistance to fight extremists, prompting the US State Department to label Khartoum “an important partner in the war on terror.” The Los Angeles Times reported this week that Khartoum’s spies had gathered information for the United States about the insurgency in Iraq as Sudan is a crossroads for fighters making their way to the war-torn nation. Sudan has also helped track the turmoil in Somalia, working to cultivate contacts with the Islamic Courts Union and other militias to try to locate Al Qaeda suspects hiding there, the report said.
While the United States has accused Khartoum of committing atrocities in Darfur and imposed economic sanctions, President George W. Bush faces criticism that he is soft-pedalling to avoid losing Sudanese cooperation on terrorism. “The US is conflicted,” said Colin Thomas-Jensen, an analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.
“On the one hand, there’s sincere concern in the White House, certainly a lot of pressure from the US Congress to deal with the atrocities in Darfur, but the overriding strategic objective of the US in the Horn of Africa is fighting terrorism and so these two issues are now clashing.” Sudan this week agreed to allow the United Nations to deploy peacekeepers alongside a poorly-equipped African Union force serving in Darfur, where 200,000 people have been killed and more than two million people displaced in violence.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when an ethnic minority rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, which then enlisted the Janjaweed militia group to help crush the rebellion.
A former head of a UN experts’ group on Sudan said the US administration regularly discusses terrorism with top Sudanese intelligence and security officials who happen to also be the architects of the Darfur campaign. Marc Lavergne named intelligence chief Salah Abdullah Gosh and Nafi Ali Nafi, one of President Omar Beshir’s key advisers, as Khartoum’s leading strategists on Darfur and who are also well-known in certain Washington circles. “These people regularly visit Washington and they are in permanent contact with the United States which considers them their special partners,” said Lavergne.
Thomas-Jensen also underscored the fact that Ghosh was flown into the United States by private CIA jet for a weeklong series of meetings in 2005 with US officials, causing much controversy within the Bush administration.
“By agreeing to divulge everything it has about Ben Laden, Al Qaeda, the Palestinians, Algerian Islamists and a bunch of other troublemakers in the world, the Sudanese government is providing an enormous service to the US government and is irreplaceable,” said Lavergne.
To placate its critics, Sudan has suggested that Darfur rebels are of the same ilk as Al Qaeda and is seeking to maximise the benefits from its decision to expel Ben Laden and align itself with Washington.
Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor in chief of Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper in London, said Ben Laden “holds a grudge” against Khartoum for expelling him and will seize upon the deployment of a UN force to try to turn Darfur into a new front for the jihad. “Al Qaeda would like to open a branch in Darfur,” he said.
“If there’s a foreign intervention and if there’s a Sudanese party who doesn’t like this foreign intervention, this will open a space for Al Qaeda to come and fill.” “So they are waiting for these forces to come, exactly the way they were waiting for the American forces to go to Iraq, to fight them,” he said.