Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 16 May 2004

US/SUDAN-From rogue state to pariah state


By MARC LACEY, The New York Times

JENEINA, western Sudan, May 16, 2004 — It is sometimes hard to figure out what Sudan’s current status is in the war on terror. The Bush administration would love to enlist its Arab-led government as an ally in a critical part of Africa. But the more the dictatorship wages wars on its own citizens, the more impossible such an alliance becomes.

Though they once harbored Osama bin Laden, the country’s Islamic leaders rooted out the Al Qaeda leadership in the late 1990’s and reached out to the United States after Sept. 11. The administration then encouraged Sudan to negotiate an end to decades of civil war with black Christians in the south whose suffering had captured the sympathies of American churchgoers.

Peace talks drew close to an agreement last winter, raising hopes in Washington - to the point where administration officials began planning to invite some Sudanese officials to the White House and to the president’s State of the Union address in January. But those plans were quietly dropped when it became clear that the Islamic dictatorship in Khartoum was stepping up a new war - this one in western Sudan, on rebellious black Muslims.

Over the past year, even as the talks to end the siege against the Christians in the south have proceeded, perhaps a million Muslims have been uprooted in the west, amid massacres that are drawing comparisons to the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans a decade ago.

So, with Congress and religious and human rights groups repeatedly calling for tough American action to stem the onslaught in the west, relations with Sudan seemed to worsen again this spring. In March, when Sudan was selected to lead the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the American delegate walked out in protest and the Sudanese delegate mocked American treatment of detainees in Iraq.

True, the administration keeps talking to the Sudanese government, fearful that a total break would doom the peace effort and Christians in the south, as well as any chance of working with Sudan in the future.

But nobody talks much anymore about a strategic alliance against terrorism, even though Sudan’s potential importance has only grown. The largest country in Africa, it is part of a region between the Arab deserts of North Africa and black Africa to the south - turf the administration has identified as crucial to stemming the spread of terrorist cells throughout the continent.

The current war in the south dates to 1983, when the Muslim government began applying Islamic law to non-Muslims. Sudanese in the south rebelled, and the government’s brutal treatment of the predominantly Christian population stirred outrage in American churches. When he took office, President Bush vowed to end the religious war.

Meanwhile, after Sept. 11, Sudan began moving to dampen American anger about its previous support for terrorists. Five years ago, after Al Qaeda bombed two American embassies in nearby countries in Africa, the Clinton administration fired cruise missiles at Khartoum in response. American sanctions have been in place against Sudan since 1997, the last American ambassador was pulled out in 1998, and the State Department has included Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism for the last 11 years.

In spite of this, Sudan has provided intelligence about Al Qaeda to American officials, and that cooperation opened the way for the peace talks on the southern front. American officials have played a key role in the talks, in which they have frequently intervened to break the many impasses that have developed. So far, the two sides have agreed to hold a referendum in the south that will allow the southerners to decide whether they want to remain part of a united Sudan or attain self-rule. To encourage them to keep Sudan unified, the government has agreed to merge its military with rebel fighters, share oil revenue with the south and divide up political positions.

But even as peace seemed to come within reach in the south, another part of Sudan deteriorated into war. In the western region known as Darfur, rebellious black Muslims looked at the concessions granted to the Christians and began demanding the same.

Furious at that turn of events, Sudan’s army moved to crush any dissent. It also unleashed militias, known as Janjaweed, to take control of the countryside. Over the past year, more than a million black Africans from Darfur have been driven from their villages by the Janjaweed, backed by government troops, and many thousands of refugees sit on the verge of starvation at the border with Chad. The militias routinely kill men and rape women.

The growing conflict in the west now even threatens the still-fragile prospect of peace in the south - particularly with human rights and religious groups clamoring for the administration to put more pressure on the Sudanese government to stop the new slaughter.

"This administration has invested enormously in peace in southern Sudan," said Ted Dagne, an Africa expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "They wanted a diplomatic success badly. Unfortunately, this is becoming a distant dream that we may not see."

Even if a deal is reached, can it be implemented? The residents of Darfur now huddled in camps, afraid to return home, say they do not trust the officials in Khartoum, who claim that they have restored stability to Darfur. Diplomats trying to resolve the situation in Darfur, as well, find it hard to put much stock in the words of a government that is denying and playing down the atrocities unfolding there.

Religious groups, too, are pessimistic.

"What makes the Christians in the south trust the government when it is going to turn around and treat fellow Muslims the way they are in Darfur," asked Diane L. Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Christian group in Washington.

Charles Colson, the Watergate figure and Christian activist, agreed. "Three months ago, I met with the president and I congratulated him on all his work on Sudan," Mr. Colson said. "It looked very hopeful. It’s disappointing that it’s coming unglued."

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