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.
"The No. 1 consideration in imposing stiffer sanctions is that the Sudanese government hasn't stopped the violence there and the people continue to suffer," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "We certainly expect the Sudanese to continue efforts against terrorism because it's in their own interests, not just ours."
Sudan has its own interests in following the insurgency because Sudanese extremists and foreign fighters who pass through the country are likely to return and become a potentially destabilizing presence.
Sudan's lax controls on travel have made it, according to one official, a "way station" for Islamist militants not only from North Africa, but also from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.
Some former U.S. intelligence officials said that Sudan's help in Iraq had been of limited value, in part because the country accounts for a small fraction of the foreign fighters, mainly at lower levels of the insurgency.
"There's not going to be a Sudanese guy near the top of the Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership," said a former CIA official who operated in Baghdad. "They might have some fighters there, but that's just cannon fodder. They don't have the trust and the ability to work their way up. The guys leading Al Qaeda in Iraq are Iraqis, Jordanians and Saudis."
But others say that Sudan's contributions have been significant because Sudanese frequently occupy support positions throughout Arab society - including in the Iraq insurgency - giving them access to movements and supply chains.
"Every group needs weapons. Every group needs a meeting place," said another former high-ranking CIA official who oversaw intelligence gathering in Iraq. "Sudanese could get involved in the support chain or smuggling channels from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait."
A State Department official said Sudan had "provided critical information that has helped our counter-terrorism efforts around the globe," but noted that there was an inherent conflict in the relationship.
"They have done things that have saved American lives," the official said. "But the bottom line is that they are bombing their people out the wazoo [in Darfur]. Dealing with Sudan, it seems like they are always playing both ends against the middle."
The CIA declined to discuss any cooperation with Sudan.
"The agency does not, as a rule, comment on relations with foreign intelligence organizations," CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said.
Ukec, the Sudanese ambassador, said "the details of what we do in counter-terrorism are not available for discussions." But he noted that the U.S. State Department "has openly said we are involved in countering terrorism," and that the assistance his country is providing "is not only in Sudan."
In the mid-1990s, the CIA's relationship with Sudan was severed. At the time, Sudan was providing safe harbor for Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders. But ties were reestablished shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the CIA reopened its station in Khartoum.
Initially, the collaboration focused on information Sudan could provide about Al Qaeda's activities before Bin Laden left for Afghanistan in 1996, including Al Qaeda's pursuit of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and its many business fronts and associates there.
Since then, Sudan has moved beyond sharing historical information on Al Qaeda into taking part in ongoing counter-terrorism operations, focusing on areas where its assistance is likely to be most appreciated.
"Iraq," a U.S. intelligence official said, "is where the intelligence is going to have the most impact on Americans."
In 2005, the CIA sent an executive jet to Sudan to fly the country's intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, to Washington for meetings with officials at agency headquarters.
Gosh has not returned to Washington since, but a former official said that "there are liaison visits every day" between the CIA and the Mukhabarat.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times