Home | News    Monday 31 March 2008

Sudan racing against time to normalize ties with US

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By Wasil Ali

March 30, 2008 (WASHINGTON) — A Democratic president in the White House is unquestionably Khartoum’s worst nightmare. The Sudanese policy makers particularly the National Congress Party (NCP) hardliners fear what they perceive as the most hostile political group in the US.
The missile strike by former democratic president Bill Clinton against a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998 remains more than just a distant memory. Based on that history Sudan is trying to settle all issues with US prior to the presidential elections next Novemeber that might bring a democratic president.

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US special envoy for Sudan Richard Williamson(L), seen here with Sudanese Foreign Minister Deng Alor in Khartoum (Reuters)

Sudan formed a high level committee headed by its foreign minister Deng Alor to work on mending ties with the US. Alor made a visit to Washington early February to ask what Sudan needs to do in order to normalize ties between the two countries. He got the same usual answers; resolve the Darfur crisis and fully implement of the North-South peace agreement.

But something different happened this time following a visit by the US special envoy Richard Williamson to Khartoum during the last week of February. Alor went to tell reporters that his government expects to normalize relations with Washington within six months. Williamson did not counter Alor’s bold statements and left it for officials at the State Department in Washington to downplay the prospects.

However the Los Angeles Times last week confirmed that the US offered to normalize ties with Sudan if it fulfils certain conditions and that Williamson conveyed it to President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in his last visit but gave no details.

"Right now this is a discussion between the government of Sudan and the government of the United States and it helps no one if we start to negotiate in public," Williamson said. "The bottom-line goal is you have got to alleviate suffering and provide enough security on the ground so that people can return home in Darfur. Short of that, nothing else matters."

Sudan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdel-Mahmood Abdel-Haleem, called it "a strategic shift," made possible by his government’s "exemplary" cooperation on terrorism matters.

"Each side is exchanging papers on each aspect," he said. "The biggest reward would be normal relations with the U.S."

Abdel-Haleem’s remarks could signal that Washington and Khartoum have stepped up their intelligence cooperation particularly in light of the recent increase in US military activity in Somalia against Al-Qaeda bases. The Sudanese former foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail told the Los Angeles Times in 2005 that his government “served as the eyes and ears of the CIA in Somalia, a sanctuary for Islamic militants”.

But it will take Sudan more than good counter terrorism cooperation to be friends with the US. In regards to Darfur in particular, the US wants Sudan to facilitate deployment of the UN-AU force stop the military offensive in the region and disarm the Janjaweed militias. But in the last few months Khartoum has done the exact opposite. It kept placing obstacles to the hybrid force, launched a military campaign in Western Darfur which led to massive displacement and recently appointed the Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal to a governmental post.

Moreover, the lifting of sanctions imposed on Sudan may also prove difficult due to a number of factors. Some of the sanctions were part of bill passed by the US Congress such as the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act. More importantly there is a political price to be paid by the Bush administration and the Republican Party in an elections year if they take a conciliatory step towards Sudan. The powerful Darfur advocacy groups and the US Congress will be closely watching any move in that direction.

US Professor Eric Reeves, a longtime expert on Sudan affairs echoes the same view.

“So long as the National Islamic Front (National Congress Party) regime retains a stranglehold on Sudanese national wealth and power, there is exceedingly little chance that we will see any significant change in Sudanese behavior before the US presidential elections, or indeed afterwards. Khartoum’s hope that the US will tire of exerting pressure on a genocidal regime ignores the political potency of Darfur advocacy in the US, as well as advocacy for South Sudan” Reeves says.

“Instead of meeting US demands, Khartoum seems more inclined to lurch toward ever more destabilizing and threatening military actions, such as the recent assaults north of el-Geneina in West Darfur and the ratcheting up of tensions in Abyei” he added.

We can compare Sudan’s optimism on US relations to that of North Korea. The latter agreed to relinquish its nuclear program in return for scrapping sanctions and removes its name from terrorism list, and its foreign ministry even went as far as saying that Washington is in the process of completing these two demands. But the US said North Korea needs to more before sanctions are lifted.

But in the meanwhile the US may be taking discreet steps to help its diplomatic engagement with Sudan. The US Treasury appears to have held back on cracking down against violators of Sudan sanctions as they promised almost two months ago. Also the US administration seems to have softened its rhetoric on Sudan particularly in terms of troop deployment to Darfur and shifted the blame to the UN.

In a letter delivered Thursday to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Williamson criticized delays in sending troops to Darfur, and asked the United Nations’ peacekeeping department to be more flexible in its requirements for troops and equipment.

"At this crucial moment, the deployment of new troops as quickly as possible is our best hope to change the course of this tragedy," he wrote in the letter obtained by Los Angeles Times.

Williamson said that it was "pathetic" that only 290 new personnel had arrived in Darfur since January, when the U.N. absorbed 9,000 police officers and soldiers from the African Union force already there. He suggested, among other things, that the U.N. pay for the soldiers’ equipment and food rather than wait for their home countries to provide the supplies.

In the coming Sudan will anxiously await the outcome of their new initiative with the US. It is yet to be seen whether the 6 month timeframe predicted by Alor was a realistic one. The millions of Darfur refugees will also be waiting to see their lives get better after years of misery.

(ST)

Some information for this report provided by Los Angeles Times.

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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