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Why does James Inhofe support Ivory Coast's Gbagbo?

As the situation in the Ivory Coast rapidly deteriorates, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla. - R) has written to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for new elections in the Ivory Coast, a signal of support for outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo who has refused to step down from office after losing an internationally certified presidential ballot in November.

Inhofe's position starkly contradicts the administration's policy on the Ivory Coast, where Gbagbo has been widely accused of targeting civilians and opposition supporters during the four month stand-off. U.S., European, U.N., and African Union policy has called for the outgoing president to step down immediately. Today, the U.N. Security Council slapped tough sanctions on his regime, adding to existing American, European, and African sanctions already in place. 

So how did an Oklahoma senator come to support a man that most see as an obstacle to peace in the Ivory Coast?

Salon got the first bite out of this story, reporting that Inhofe and Gbagbo met through a Christian group known as the Fellowhip. Read that side of the story here.

When I spoke to Sen. Inhofe by phone today, he told me that he had known Gbagbo for years. "We have a lot of friends in common." I asked him if he had been able to communicate with Gbagbo since the November election, to which he replied: "I have been able to, but I have not."

Inhofe first wrote to the State Department to contest the Ivorian elections on February 9, when he says that he provided documented evidence that the vote had been flawed. 

Then, earlier this week, a former member of Gbagbo's outgoing government, Mel Eg Theodore, visited Inhofe to discuss the political stand off in the Ivory Coast. Theodore told me this afternoon by phone that he arrived in Washington from Abidjan just two days ago to meet with U.S. officials about the country's political stand off. He said he "didn't have  chance" to meet with the State Department, but he claimed that evidence of the fraud -- including voting records -- was sent to Foggy Bottom months ago.

"We have received things from those purporting to be from Gbagbo," a state department official told me today. "And we have seen some things that have clearly been manufactured. We know that the U.N. [which certified the election results] has maintained copies of all of the voting records as well.

"We share his concern for the violence on the ground, but we remain clear that Gbagbo must step down."

In his letter to Clinton, Inhofe claims to have spoken with Ivorian officials. He also told me he had conferred with five "sub-Saharan African" heads  of government "who are very close to this issue and who agree [the election] was stolen, no question about that." The heads of state, he said, had chosen not to make their allegations publicly in hopes of preventing more bloodshed.

Inhofe writes that he also wants to prevent further bloodshed on the ground in calling for new elections, though a switch in U.S. policy at this stage would likely prolong the political deadlock.

Theodore denied that the Gbagbo government had been involved in committing atrocities against the Ivorian people. "Always it is lies and lies and more lies," he told me.

"Right now there is no fighting in the streets. Abidjan is more than quiet, it is even ghost city."

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

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