Rumors of peace

November 10, 2003

THE CURRENT phase of Sudan's civil war has lasted two decades, but underlying animosities between the Arab north and Christian-animist south predate World War II. That's why prospects of a peace agreement, which so excited Secretary of State Colin L. Powell last month, must be greeted with caution. Many tricky details still need to be ironed out.

During the past two years, the Bush administration has played a crucial role in trying to end hostilities - and with good reason. An unstable Sudan is a powder keg; Osama bin Laden demonstrated its dangers when he hid there during the early 1990s, plotting his terrorist attacks.

Conversely, a stable Sudan could be a constructive regional player. It is Africa's largest country, whose neighbors include Libya, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Chad. Sudan's access to the Red Sea elevates its geo-strategic position further.

But the country's civil war has taken a terrible toll: An estimated 1.5 million people have died in the fighting and accompanying famine over the past two decades. Add to that other ravages, including widespread enslavement of captured foes, and it's clear that this man-made calamity must be stopped.

Despite many previous settlement attempts, hostilities have persisted because they have not resolved the central question of who controls the country's oil.

There cannot be any lasting settlement in Sudan unless the oil wealth is shared. But because the deposits are along the border between the Islamic north and the Christian-dominated south, religion and long-standing geographical inequities instantly emerge as complicating factors.

John C. Danforth, the former Republican senator from Missouri, has been one of the chief architects of a peace plan that calls for a six-year transition period. If the outstanding issues - from sharing oil wealth to territorial disputes - can be resolved, the feuding parties would come to Washington in December to sign a peace agreement.

With success so near, the Bush administration should redouble its considerable efforts to close the deal.

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