On Monday and Wednesday of this week (March 23 and 25), Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir made two quick trips to the Eritrean capital of Asmara and Cairo, unworried by the risk of being caught up with by the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) earlier this month, charging him with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa report that the Sudanese dictator was advised to make these visits by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who have both publicly opposed what they regard as the ICC's meddling in an intra-Arab affair in which parties outside the Middle East have no business to interfere.
Omar al-Bashir hoped that his welcome in Cairo and reception by Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki would pave the way to international acceptance of his attendance at the Arab League Summit of March 31 in Doha, Qatar, and the passage of a resolution denouncing the ICC and supporting the Bashir regime in Khartoum.
Tuesday, March 24, the day before he landed in Cairo, the Egyptian newspaper al-Shurooq reported that in January, an American AC-130H gunship, which took off from an American airbase in Djibouti, attacked an Iranian arms convoy in northern Sudan bound for Hamas in Gaza. All 17 trucks in the convoy were destroyed and 39 persons killed.
The newspaper said the Sudanese authorities conducted 'a full blown dossier' on the attack, consisting of images, forensics as well as remains of weapons and satellite phones.
The al-Shurooq article quoted Egyptian and Sudanese military sources. This was taken as a sign that the two governments were in cahoots to cook up a stratagem for showing the Obama administration that anything the West could do to gather evidence against Sudan and its president, Cairo and Khartoum could match with proofs of US crimes against international law in the Middle East.
Washington ducks questions about the air strike on the Iran-Hamas convoy
This sort of dodge occurs rarely in the Egyptian-US relationship and indicates that a chill has crept in. Washington did not react directly, but some hours after the Cairo paper, the American CBS network hit back by claiming that the Iranian weapons convoy was attacked not by American planes but by the Israeli Air Force.
This device saved an argument with Cairo over whether the air strike was ordered by the former US administration or by the incoming US president Barack Obama as his first strike against terror and effectively lobbed the hot potato back into the Middle East court.
The Sudan affair is just one of the landmines on the road to the Arab League summit meeting in Doha next week, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources.
Another was the need to squash the Qatar ruler, the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's decision to invite Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Doha summit. Many Arab rulers, including the Saudi king and Egyptian president, warned him that he could count them out if Ahmadinejad was there. Al-Thani gave way.
Still unresolved is the threat by the kings of Jordan and Morocco and the Egyptian president to boycott the summit over offensive content run by the Arab-language TV station al-Jazeera, which broadcasts from Qatar and is owned privately by the royal house of Qatar.
Qatari emir in hot water
Al Jazeera's incendiary broadcasts and constant vilification of Arab rulers and regimes have long since raised the backs of Arab rulers against the emir. Most are convinced al-Thani is promoting al Jazeera mudslinging against his Arab confreres to give the tiny principality a power-base in the Arab world. The postage-stamp emirate is no more than 11,437 square kilometers and home to a mere 850 thousand inhabitants.
The TV station has done Al-Thani proud, becoming the most powerful television outlet for the Arab world and beyond, with strong audiences in most Muslim countries.
This week, a group of Arab rulers decided to exploit the Qatari emir's burning ambition to prove his tiny realm was up to hosting the most important event on the Arab calendar to finally muzzle al Jazeera. They seized on the pretext of a two-part series on the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, which alleged that King Hussein of Jordan, father of the incumbent monarch, phoned Israel prime minister Golda Meir to tip her off on the coming Egyptian-Syrian offensive. Jordan's King Abdullah called Al-Thani with a demand to take the show off the air. When he was rebuffed, the Jordanian monarch announced he would not show up at the Arab summit in a place where his late father was libeled and defamed.
According to our Persian Gulf sources, the tiff spread.
King Muhammad VI of Morocco and President Mubarak of Egypt put the Qatari emir on notice that they too would stay away unless he apologized to the Hashemite King and demonstrated by deeds not just words that al Jazeera would stop its outrageous broadcasts.
Syrian president Bashar Assad has meanwhile tried his hand at resolving the quarrel which threatens to mar the Doha summit – so far with no success.