U.S. officials concede that the links between a Saudi multimillionaire accused of involvement in terrorism and a Sudanese plant destroyed in a U.S. cruise missile strike are "fuzzy."
Under increasing pressure to explain why the United States attacked the Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant known for making painkillers and malaria medicine, U.S. officials now are emphasizing an alleged connection between the plant and Iraq's chemical weapons program.A U.S. intelligence official, who spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity, said there was no direct financial relationship between the plant and Osama bin Laden, suspected by the United States of masterminding the Aug. 7 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 257 people, including 12 Americans.
The Clinton administration had some intelligence indicating contact between a senior Shifa official and individuals associated with bin Laden's suspected terrorist net-work.
"We knew there were fuzzy ties between him and the plant but strong ties between him and Sudan and strong ties between the plant and Sudan and strong ties between the plant and Iraq," the intelligence official said.
U.S. officials say they have intelligence indicating that scientists in Baghdad worked with counterparts at the plant in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, on a formula - unique to Iraq - for making the deadly nerve agent VX. The intelligence included intercepted phone conversations between the plant and Iraqi officials.
A CIA clandestine operation netted a soil sample from the plant grounds containing traces of the man-made chemical EMPTA, officials have said.
"Iraq is the only country we're aware of" that uses EMPTA in making VX, the intelligence official said. "There are a variety of ways of making VX, a variety of recipes, and EMPTA is fairly unique."
But Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations strongly denied that his government worked with Sudanese scientists to make chemical weapons. Iraq's only contact with the pharmaceutical factory was to fill pharmaceutical contracts, Nizar Hamdoon told reporters in New York on Tuesday.
He described the accusations against Iraq as being "part of the effort to try to muddle the whole situation in order to cover up the problem that they've had with the bombing of the Sudan."
U.S. intelligence officials are leaning toward the theory that Iraq was spreading its knowledge of chemical weapons production to other Muslim countries. Iraq has some 200 tons of VX hidden in the desert, more than enough to meet its needs, according to chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler.
Last fall, the Arabic-language, Paris-based publication Al-Watan al-'Arabi reported on the agenda of a secret meeting in Khartoum held by a former Sudanese leader and attended by representatives of fundamentalist Islamic groups, including bin Laden.
The participants at that meeting discussed the urgency of beginning operations at a new "chemical and bacteriological factory" in the Khartoum suburb of Kubar, according to the report. The factory project, according to the meeting agenda, was being done in cooperation with the Iraqi government. Jane's Intelligence Review also reported on the meeting.
The Pentagon decided not to strike this facility in last Thursday's surprise missile attack because of its proximity to res-i-den-tial neighborhoods, including a diplomatic enclave. Instead, strike planning focused on the Shifa plant in an industrial section of Khartoum.
U.S. intelligence developed several pieces of evidence - inconclusive individually - that together persuaded the administration to bomb the site, say senior intelligence and defense officials.