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Look at the Place! Sudan Says, 'Say Sorry,' but U.S. Won't

10/19/2005 8:59pm

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Oct.15 - The man guarding the wreckage of the Shifa pharmaceutical factory does not chase visitors away.

On the contrary, he opens the gate for them, graciously invites them in and provides a tour through the twisted metal and cascading concrete of the plant, which was destroyed by American cruise missiles in 1998 in the days after the terrorist attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

It is looters whom the guard deals with sternly. The people living around the damaged El Shifa plant are desperately poor and the rubble to them would mean a small fortune if sold as scrap. But dare cart away a piece of metal sheeting, or try to pilfer some melted bottles or twisted pipe from the wreckage, and Jedi Muhammad will give chase.

Sudan's government wants the Shifa factory preserved just as it was shortly after 13 Tomahawk cruise missiles took it out in the early evening of August 20. The destroyed factory has become a monument of sorts, a place that Sudanese authorities say symbolizes the mistreatment they have suffered at the hands of the world's superpower.

"The government wants it as a showcase," said Eltayeb Hag Ateya, director of the Peace Studies Institute at the University of Khartoum. "It's still a thorn in Sudan-American relations. It will always be a point for the Sudanese government to bring up."

American officials have acknowledged over the years that the evidence that prompted President Clinton to order the missile strike on the Shifa plant was not as solid as first portrayed. Indeed, officials later said that there was no proof that the plant had been manufacturing or storing nerve gas, as initially suspected by the Americans, or had been linked to Osama bin Laden, who was a resident of Khartoum in the 1980's. But Washington still has not ruled out the possibility that El Shifa did, in fact, have some link to chemical weapons production.

So no apology has been made and no restitution offered, which has Sudan's government steaming, even seven years after the ground shook and the dark sky over Khartoum turned light as the plant was hit.

On the most recent anniversary of the bombing, Sudanese authorities did what they always do and repeated their call for a United Nations investigation of the American attack on the factory, which, if nothing else, was a major provider of medicines for humans and animals at the time it was destroyed.

Mustafa Osman Ismail, who was foreign minister until recently, also raised the issue at the United Nations summit meeting in New York last month, saying the bombing "damaged the development efforts of my country and deprived my people of basic medicines."

He added, "Today, from this rostrum, we reiterate our call to the United Nations to take the necessary and just measures within the framework of international law and appeal to the international community as a whole to support this just and legitimate demand."

But as in past years, the issue went nowhere under opposition from the United States, which has had many other serious grievances with Khartoum, whether or not El Shifa was being put to nefarious use. The State Department still lists Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, despite vigorous efforts by the Sudanese to get the designation lifted, and Washington has accused Khartoum of stoking the civil war in the western Darfur region and making targets of civilians.

Saleh Idris, the owner of El Shifa at the time of the bombing, was driving his Land Cruiser through the chaotic streets of Khartoum the other day, singing along to a love song blaring on his CD player. He knew all the words, which was not surprising given that he had produced it in his home recording studio.

The evening before, he had been sitting in a luxury box at the Hilal Stadium watching a professional soccer match between two crosstown rivals. He is president of the Hilal team, which won that night.

Mr. Idris, a wealthy businessman involved in everything from real estate to textiles, appears to have gotten on with his life since 1998, when the Americans destroyed his factory and froze $24 million he had deposited in Bank of America because of suspected ties between him and Mr. Bin Laden.

After Mr. Idris filed a lawsuit, the Treasury Department released the funds within months of the bombing. Another suit seeking compensation for the damage to his property is still pending.

Unlike his government, Mr. Idris said he is not out to score political points against America. His Sudanese legal adviser, Ghazi Suliman, goes so far as to say that such a missile strike against Sudan would have been justified if the evidence against the factory had been solid.

"My government labeled this as anti-Islamist aggression, but I reject that," said Mr. Suliman, a critic of Sudan's government who has been jailed numerous times for speaking out. "If Shifa was involved in such an evil program, it deserved to be attacked."

But Mr. Suliman said the Americans relied on faulty intelligence that led them to bomb an innocent target.

Mr. Idris, who was born in Sudan but later became a citizen of Saudi Arabia, said he would relish meeting former President Bill Clinton one day over tea - the Sudanese prepare it piping hot, with loads of sugar, in tiny glasses - to discuss El Shifa.

"I would love to sit with him," Mr. Idris said. "We all make right decisions and wrong decisions based on the advice we get. But whenever you are wrong, you have to put it right. This was a very bad decision."

Outside the front gate of the damaged plant is another man who would like to talk to Mr. Clinton. Identifying himself only by his first name, Ahmed is a former employee at El Shifa who now runs a kiosk in front of the shuttered plant.

"When a person attacks you in your home, what do you call him?" Ahmed said angrily. "Is he a friend or an enemy?"

But one of Ahmed's customers, Muhammad Adam, cut him off. "We don't want to hate you," he told a visitor. Mr. Adam then offered his services: he is a construction worker, he said, and would like to be hired should the Americans ever pay for El Shifa to go back up.

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