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Sudan Faces More U.S. Demands After Suggestion It Could Be Taken Off Terrorism List

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Getting out from under U.S. sanctions is not easy. The country of Sudan has been trying for years. After its longtime dictator was ousted last year, chances improved for the U.S. to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the Trump administration seems to be moving the goal posts.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sudanese doctor Amjed Farid was in and out of jail for much of the past decade for his political activism. Now he's the assistant chief of staff for Sudan's prime minister, and he's trying to help his huge, oil-rich African nation turn a corner.

AMJED FARID: After 30 years of terrorism, the Sudanese people managed last year to topple one of the worst dictatorship all around the world.

KELEMEN: The Islamist leader they toppled, Omar al-Bashir, gave sanctuary to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Bashir was later accused of genocide in Darfur. Sudan's new transitional government is trying to shake off that past, but its economy is in shambles. And Farid says the terrorism designation means that his country can't even get COVID aid from international institutions.

FARID: And it prevents international investment to come to Sudan.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that Sudan could be taken off the list by mid-October. But on a recent trip to Khartoum, the secretary had a surprise new request for Sudan - sign on to the Trump administration's Middle East agenda and normalize ties with Israel. Farid says that needs buy-in from the public.

FARID: During the current transition of Sudan, which is a very fragile one toward a democratic, open society, we cannot answer all the questions overnight.

KELEMEN: Sudan's democratic transition is fragile, says Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council. He worries that by making more demands, the U.S. could miss this chance to have a real partner in a dangerous neighborhood.

CAMERON HUDSON: It would potentially be a strategic blunder of enormous proportion. Sudan has the potential to serve as a bulwark in the Horn of Africa astride the Red Sea and the Sahel, both of which are beset with terrorist threats, some of which threaten the homeland.

KELEMEN: And there's another hurdle for Sudan. It has agreed to compensate victims of terrorist attacks, including the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. But Congress has not yet passed the necessary legislation. Many victims who were not part of any lawsuits are being left out, according to Prudence Bushnell, who was ambassador to Kenya at the time.

PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: As to the Sudan, I wish them well, and I wish there were a way that something could be done to help the government of Sudan both comply with the compensation, get off the list, but do it in a way that is more fair.

KELEMEN: Bushnell notes that the current deal provides more compensation to American than to African victims. Cameron Hudson says it's frustrating that some lawmakers are not ready to give Sudan immunity from further lawsuits and frustrating to see Pompeo focused on getting Sudan to recognize Israel.

HUDSON: All of them are in agreement that this is, as they call it, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure a democratic transition in Sudan. And yet they are, you know, allowing very parochial interests to supersede this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

KELEMEN: But even if Congress stalls, the State Department could still take Sudan off the terrorism list, and Cameron Hudson thinks it will.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.