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Rumble in the Desert

From the August 1, 2005 issue: Sudan's Darfur-style diplomacy.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By JONATHAN KARL
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Khartoum, Sudan

CONDOLEEZZA RICE realized something was wrong when she rushed into Sudan's presidential residence and found herself sitting virtually alone next to President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. Her senior staff--including two assistant secretaries of state, Rice's top policy adviser, and the three-star general who travels with her--had been held at the gate. Bashir's strongmen had also blocked Rice's translator.

Sitting next to the president of a country you have accused of genocide is awkward under any circumstances. But imagine sitting there in silence because his people have detained your translator and most of your staff. Bashir speaks no English. Rice speaks no Arabic. And, bizarrely, Sudan's president did not have his own translator. Instead of her translator and her policy advisers on Africa, the only people with Rice were the two aides who had been riding in the spare limousine: Jim Wilkinson and Liz Lineberry. Wilkinson is a senior adviser, but Lineberry wasn't even supposed to be in the meeting. She usually waits outside, guarding the secretary's "baseball"--that is, her purse. In the absence of her usual entourage, Rice told Lineberry to stay.

Inside the meeting, the silence stretched on for several minutes, while outside Rice's translator, Gemal Helal, was growing irate. No meek foreign servant, Helal is the veteran of years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and has translated for presidents. And he's more than a translator; he's one of Rice's key advisers on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Finally, Helal started to walk away, directing a profanity at the guards (in Arabic, of course) and telling them that their president would have to meet with the secretary of state without a translator. The guards relented and jammed Gemal into one of Bashir's cars, rushing him inside the gate and to the meeting.

President Bashir's security guards were just getting warmed up. The rumble in Khartoum was widely portrayed as an incident involving Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, but long before the guards got around to roughing up Mitchell, they pushed around Rice's senior staff and several other reporters traveling with Rice. Ray Odierno--the formidable six-foot, five-inch, three-star Army general who orchestrated the capture of Saddam Hussein--had to power his way into the meeting, clearing a path for the two women in Rice's party (Constance Newman, assistant secretary of state, and Cindy Courville, an NSC official).

This initial scuffle especially irritated senior Rice adviser Jim Wilkinson. Wilkinson managed to get inside, but he had been roughed up on his way. He didn't stay in the meeting long, coming out to give the guard who shoved him a dose of Texas diplomacy, telling him, "If you touch me again, I'll knock you on your ass."

Wilkinson usually doesn't speak on the record, but this time he couldn't resist. "We frankly don't appreciate being manhandled at the door," Wilkinson said. "It's Diplomacy 101: You don't rough up your guests."

This was not how things were supposed to go. President Bashir used his meeting with Secretary Rice to urge the United States to lift sanctions on Sudan and to reestablish full diplomatic relations (we haven't had an ambassador in Khartoum since 1997). To the Sudanese, the request seems perfectly reasonable. In fact, just two years ago, Sudan-U.S. relations seemed to be on a fast track toward normalization. The United States was brokering a historic peace agreement to end the country's two-decade civil war between the North and the South, and Colin Powell was talking about finally getting an ambassador back to Khartoum.

The North-South peace deal was signed last year, but in the meantime the government of Sudan started fighting a rebel insurgency in the western Darfur region by arming the so-called Janjaweed militias. The bloodshed horrified the world and made it impossible for the United States to lift sanctions. Instead of sending an ambassador back to Khartoum, Powell accused the government of genocide.

Because of the North-South peace deal, however, signs of progress slowly became visible. Rice--before her ill-fated meeting with Bashir--was even talking about a "new day" in U.S.-Sudan relations. On July 9, that peace agreement brought rebel leader John Garang and his people into the Sudanese government. This is not quite regime change, but Rice called the government "a changing regime."

Garang may be the most fascinating political figure in Africa today. A 1969 graduate of Grinnell College, Garang has a Ph.D. in economics from Iowa State University. He was part of Sudan's government until 1983, when he was dispatched to quell a rebel insurgency in the mostly Christian and animist south. Instead of fighting the rebels, he joined them, organizing a more formidable force to challenge Khartoum. In the 1980s, he allied himself with Ethiopia's Communist government, but for the last decade and a half, he has had strong support from the United States. Garang is now the first vice president of Sudan, a shift in power the United States believes offers the best chance to end the killing in Darfur.

But Rice's ill-fated meeting with Bashir shows the "changing regime" isn't changing too fast. At the end of the meeting, President Bashir's security detail agreed to let American reporters in for a quick photo opportunity with a strict "no questions" rule. When Andrea Mitchell tried to ask a question, she got roughed up and Bashir got a lesson in Public Relations 101: Don't go pushing around a high-profile correspondent when the television cameras are rolling.

Rice, with a look of stunned disbelief on her face, watched Bashir's men push the American reporters out of the room. As she was leaving for Darfur, she told the senior American diplomat in Sudan, "I want an apology by the time I land in Darfur."

The diplomat, John Limbert, is one of the 52 Americans who were held hostage for 444 days in Tehran. He passed on the message and, sure enough, a call came to Rice on her airplane 15 minutes before she landed in Darfur. It was Sudan's foreign minister calling to say sorry--something no Sudanese official has ever said about the killing in Darfur.

Jonathan Karl is senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News.