|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
27 Aug. - 2 Sep. 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Fuzzy connectionsThe White House is launching an intensive campaign to convince foes and allies alike that the American military strike against a Khartoum pharmaceutical plant was more than justified.
But the lack of evidence offered so far has led to demands that the United Nations send a fact-finding mission to verify Washington's claims that the plant was involved in producing a precursor for the deadly VX nerve gas.
Despite the diplomatic standoff, some senior diplomats at the UN told Al-Ahram Weekly Sudan appears eager to try and use this latest crisis to mend ties with the US. "Sudan is playing it cool here," said a senior Arab diplomat at the UN. "It is hoping for financial compensation from the US and wants to avoid public exposure by Washington of its past record, which could prove embarrassing."
Simultaneously with last Thursday's strike against Khartoum the US also hit alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan in retaliation for the 7 August bombing of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 247 people were killed and 5,000 injured.
Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering told reporters on Tuesday evening that Washington had sufficient evidence against Sudan -- including contacts between officials at Al-Shifaa plant and Iraqi chemical weapons experts -- to warrant the attack. "I think it is important to know and understand that we have been aware for at least two years that there was a serious potential problem at this plant that was struck, that we had related important physical evidence which was acquired by the United States in recent months," said Pickering.
The evidence included a soil sample which showed "the presence of a chemical whose simple name is EMPTA, a known precursor for the nerve agent VX and an indicator of a potential to produce VX gas," added Pickering, who is one of several US officials who are meeting with various press and media organisations to explain Washington's case.
He stressed that there was no need for a UN team to investigate the American claim, adding that "we believe this evidence from our point of view is very persuasive and very important... which made this strike on this particular target the correct and proper decision under the circumstances."
Earlier in the week the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity and non-aligned states took Sudan's side at the UN, supporting its request for a fact-finding mission. But the US was quick to reject the demand. After a 10-minute debate behind closed doors on Monday, the UN Security Council deferred a decision on the Sudanese request.
"The discussion was not impressive...The Americans stressed their legitimate right to self-defence and rejected outright any formal discussion of the issue and the sending of a fact-finding mission to Sudan," a senior diplomat at the UN said. He quoted US representatives as telling the Council: "The United States will present the UN with what proves its point of view and the necessity of the strike."
The Arab side, currently represented by Bahrain, stressed the need for a formal debate and verification by a UN fact-finding team.
Against the backdrop of wide-scale Arab, African and Muslim support, even by states which have had tense relations with Khartoum, Sudan presented the Council with a document detailing the operations of Al-Shifaa. The plant "was designed by American expert Mr Henry Jobe who works with MSD pharmaceutical company," said the document. "Modern production machines were imported from the US, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, India and Thailand."
But the Sudanese opposition in Cairo insisted that the plant was producing ingredients for chemical weapons. "The reality is that this plant was making components for chemical arms while pharmaceuticals were manufactured to cover up the main activity," said Mubarak Al-Mahdi, secretary-general of the National Democratic Alliance [NDA], the Sudanese opposition coalition.
Mahdi said the factory belonged to the Islamic National Front, led by Sudanese parliament speaker Hassan Al-Turabi, and was one of several plants involved in similar activities. "The Front supervises the programme as part of its partnership with Iraq and some extreme Muslim militant circles, including Osama Bin Laden," the NDA statement said.
US intelligence officials said they believe the plant was working with Iraq to make deadly nerve gas. Under increasing pressure to explain why Washington attacked the factory, the officials added the Iraqi connection to previously cited findings that a chemical in the soil at the plant is unique to Iraq's nerve gas recipe. The assessment is based in part on intelligence interceptions of telephone calls, the officials said.
US officials now concede their initial justification for the raid -- evidence linking the plant to Bin Laden who is accused of organising the embassy bombings -- is less concrete than initially claimed.
A US intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is no direct financial relationship between the plant and Bin Laden. "We knew there were fuzzy ties between him and the plant but strong ties between him and Sudan and strong ties between the plant and Iraq," the intelligence official said.
US officials say they have intelligence indicating that scientists in Baghdad worked with counterparts at the plant in Khartoum on a formula for making the deadly nerve agent VX.
A CIA clandestine operation netted a soil sample from the plant grounds containing traces of the man-made chemical EMPTA, officials said. "Iraq is the only country we're aware of" that uses EMPTA in making VX, the intelligence official said. "There are a variety of ways of making VX, a variety of recipes, and EMPTA is fairly unique."
Iraq strongly denied the charges
Hoda Tawfik in Washington, Wire dispatches