With weeks to go before the United States presidential elections, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is racing to make a breakthrough with Sudan that he hopes could also benefit Israel.
Sudan’s new civilian-led government is urgently seeking to be removed from the US blacklist of “state sponsors of terrorism”, and is seen by Washington as open to becoming the latest Arab state to recognise Israel – a significant cause for President Donald Trump’s electoral base.
“The United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that compensation is finally provided to victims of the 1998 al-Qaeda-backed terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania,” Pompeo wrote in a letter to senators that was confirmed by congressional sources, AFP news agency reported on Wednesday.
“We also have a unique and narrow window to support the civilian-led transitional government in Sudan that has finally rid itself of the Islamist dictatorship that previously led that country.”
Sudan is one of four nations listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the US, severely impeding investment as businesses worry of legal risks in dealing with the country.
The designation dates back to 1993 when then strongman Omar al-Bashir welcomed armed fighters, including Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, which carried out the embassy attacks that claimed more than 200 lives.
Washington had been gradually reconciling with al-Bashir, who agreed to independence for the mostly Christian South Sudan.
But Sudan was transformed last year when al-Bashir was deposed following a wave of youth-led protests. British-educated economist Abdalla Hamdok has become the new prime minister with a reformist mandate in a transitional arrangement with the military.
Sudan’s removal from the list has been held up by a dispute over a package of some $335m that Khartoum would pay as compensation to victims’ families and survivors of the embassy attacks.
Completing a compensation package “is one of the highest priorities for the Department of State,” a US spokesperson told AFP.
In his letter, Pompeo said it was “very likely” that an agreement on claims and on delisting Sudan from the terror blacklist would be completed by the end of October – days before the November 3 election.
But the US Congress also needs to pass legislation to provide Sudan immunity from further claims.
Senate Democrats are divided in part because the draft package would provide more money to US citizens than Africans, who made up the majority of the victims – an arrangement some call discriminatory but others say is realistic and in keeping with precedent.
Some US legislators also want a further discussion on compensation for other attacks by al-Qaeda, notably the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen.
Sudan has hinted at a willingness to engage with Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February met Khartoum’s top general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in Uganda.
Pompeo briefly stopped in Khartoum in late August in the first visit there by a US Secretary of State in 15 years.
Hamdok, in his meeting with Pompeo, said his transitional government, which is set to rule until 2022 elections, did not have the mandate to normalise relations with Israel.
But some observers believe there can still be forward movement on Israel deal, especially with the prospect of removal from the US “terror” blacklist.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recently became the latest Arab states to recognise Israel, in what Trump has touted as foreign policy wins.