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Did the US Bomb the Wrong Sudanese Plant in 1998? - 2001-08-25

The owner of a plant in Sudan destroyed by the United States in 1998 is suing the U.S. Government to pay for rebuilding it. He and others contend it was not producing chemical weapons, as charged, but genuine pharmaceuticals. The United States is contesting the suit and not admitting error.

On August 20, 1998, the United States retaliated for the bombing of its two embassies in Africa. It struck alleged terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was said to be producing chemical weapons for terrorist use.

In both cases, say the critics, the linkage turned out to be tenuous. In the case of the Sudanese plant, they cite mounting evidence that it was producing only pharmaceuticals for a needy people.

That is also the conclusion of a detailed analysis by the California-based Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Its author Michael Barletta says U.S. outrage was understandable: "Two U.S. embassies had just been attacked. Many innocent people had been killed, and there was a sense among the President's senior advisers that they needed to take some forceful action in response," he says. "What they did in something they termed 'Operation Infinite Reach' was to launch a simultaneous attack on two targets that could be seen as linked in some way to Osama bin Laden."

But the President and his advisers acted too hastily, says Mr. Barletta. Trying to maintain secrecy and prevent leaks, they failed to consider all the available intelligence: "The U.S. Government is a very large, complicated and not always very well connected group of individuals and different offices and agencies," Mr. Barletta says. "What I was able to do and others were able to do is to piece together evidence based on the best information available within the U.S. Government and outside the U.S. Government after the fact."

After the bombing, the U.S. assets of the plant's owner, Salah Idris, were frozen. They have now been released to him, but the U.S. government balks at paying to rebuild the plant. Various U.S. officials will not comment on the matter since the suit is pending, and they admit no error. There is a suggestion that in a warlike situation, collateral damage is possible.

U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher has introduced a bill in Congress to reimburse Mr. Idris, but its fate is uncertain.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at Washington's Cato Institute, has closely examined the plant bombing: "We are dealing with a country we really do not like, Sudan. So I think there is a certain hesitancy to help this guy," he says, "even though he is innocent, simply because he is Sudanese. The Sudanese government is so bad with the ongoing civil war, slavery and everything else the background environment."

Even so, says Mr. Bandow, justice must be done. While firm action is needed against terrorism, it must be taken with care: "This one of those moments where America really has to decide. Is it willing to admit that it makes a mistake? I think in the long term that gives us more credibility in the international arena. We have a decision, which Congress and the administration will face," he says.

Mr. Bandow notes the United States has faced similar problems. It compensated Iran for mistakenly shooting down one of its airliners and China for destroying its embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict.