CAIRO – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Sudan on Tuesday to push for normalizing ties with Israel, building on momentum from the recent historic agreement to establish relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The Sudanese transitional government said, however, that it does not have a mandate to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. It called on the Trump administration to not make the removal of Sudan from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism contingent upon normalizing relations with Israel.
Sudan is on a fragile path to democracy after the popular uprising led the military to overthrow autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. A military-civilian government now rules the country, with elections possible in late 2022.
The transitional authorities are desperate to have sanctions lifted that are linked to its listing by the U.S. as a terror sponsor. That would be a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding its battered economy, which has plunged in recent months, threatening to destabilize the political transition.
Pompeo is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the African country since 2005, when Condoleezza Rice visited. He also is the most senior U.S. official to visit the African country since last year’s ouster of al-Bashir.
Pompeo arrived from Israel and while he was still airborne he tweeted: “Happy to announce that we are on the FIRST official NONSTOP flight from Israel to Sudan!”
His flight was the first direct trip between Tel Aviv to the Sudanese capital Khartoum. Pompeo was in Israel on Monday on the first stop of his multi-country tour in the region. The trip follows the Aug. 13 agreement between Israel and the UAE to establish diplomatic ties.
Pompeo met Tuesday with Sudanese Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of the ruling sovereign council, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok,
Hamdok later described his meeting with Pompeo as “great" and tweeted in English that they had a “direct & transparent conversation" about removing Sudan from the U.S. terror list, bilateral relations and the U.S. government's support for the civilian-led transitional government in Sudan.
The prime minister urged the Trump administration not to link the removal of Sudan’s name from its list of state sponsors of terrorism to the normalization of times with Israel, said Information Minister Fasial Saleh.
"The transitional government does not have the mandate ... to decide on normalization with Israel. This matter will be decided after the completion of the transitional authority,” said Saleh. He was referring to the legislative body that has yet to be formed.
The sovereign council said Pompeo also met with Burhan but did not give details. A Sudanese military official said their talks focused on “the next step toward normalization and incentives that Sudan will gain." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of he was not authorized to brief reporters.
"Great to be in Khartoum for meetings with the civilian-led transitional government. The democratic transition underway is a once in a generation opportunity for the people of Sudan," Pompeo tweeted.
Pompeo's discussions with the Sudanese leaders marked the “continued deepening of the Israel-Sudan bilateral relationship,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
She said Pompeo also urged the Sudanese premier to provide protection to civilians in the Darfur region, which has seen a spate of armed attacks that killed dozens of people.
In February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Burhan, during a trip to Uganda where they pledged to pursue normalization. The meeting was held secretly and only announced after it happened. It also paved the way for another first — two weeks after the meeting in Uganda, an Israeli aircraft made a historic first flight over Sudanese territory.
At the time of the Burhan-Netanyahu meeting, the Sudanese military said the talks with Israel were an effort to help end Sudan’s status as an international pariah state.
Following a meeting with Hamdok on Monday, a coalition representing the protesters who helped topple al-Bashir last year said in a statement that the transitional government “has no mandate” to decide on normalizing ties with Israel.
The coalition, known as Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, also “emphasized the right of the Palestinian people to their land and the right of free and dignified life,” the statement said.
Sudan hosted the landmark Arab conference after the 1967 Mideast War where eight Arab countries approved the “three no’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations.
But in recent years those hostilities have softened, and both countries have expressed readiness to normalize relations.
A Sudanese government official told The Associated Press last week that deliberations between Sudanese and Israeli officials have been going on for months, with the help of Egypt, the UAE and the U.S.
Sudan's former Foreign Ministry Ambassador Haidar Badawi said last week that Sudan was looking forward to making a peace deal with Israel. His comments immediately drew a pledge from Netanyahu to “do all that’s needed” to wrap up a deal. Badawi was later dismissed from his post by acting Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din who claimed that his ministry had not discussed the issue of ties with Israel.
The designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism dates back to the 1990s, when Sudan briefly hosted Osama bin Laden and other wanted militants. Sudan was also believed to have served as a pipeline for Iran to supply weapons to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.