U.S. diplomats struggling to avert disaster in Sudan

Past failures in Africa underlie sense of urgency


WASHINGTON - Less than a year ago, the Bush administration was so hopeful about ending the civil war in Sudan that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell invited Sudanese leaders to sign a peace accord at the White House.

Now the administration is working feverishly with European, African and Arab countries to avert further suffering in Darfur, in western Sudan, where attacks by Arab militias backed by the Muslim-led government on black residents who are also Muslims have led to tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of perhaps a million people.

Haunted by memories of past U.S. failures in Rwanda and other parts of Africa, administration officials say their complex diplomatic efforts have huge implications, not only for U.S. ties with Muslims and Africans, but also for the effort to curb terrorism and the need to repair relations with Europe and the United Nations.

"It's a classic coalition-building problem," said a State Department official. "We're the ones with the biggest sense of urgency, because as many as 300,000 people can die if we don't get this moving. What worries me is that we may not have enough time."

Powell, echoing the view at the United Nations, said Thursday that the United States had worked hard with European and U.N. officials to get a strong U.N. Security Council resolution that threatened Sudan with sanctions, though not explicitly.

That resolution, he said, had produced some willingness by the Sudanese government to disarm its militias in the west and to permit African troops to help secure the delivery of aid to the refugees. He and others say that an overly aggressive approach with the Sudanese government in Khartoum might backfire.

"We have to calibrate the pressure that we apply on the Sudanese government to make sure we get the results we need, and we don't create a more difficult situation for us and for the people of Darfur," Powell said at a national convention of minority journalists in Washington.

Generally, the administration has won credit among diplomats. But while the United States helped achieve progress last year in one of Sudan's civil conflicts - between the government and Christians in the south - there is also criticism that U.S. officials were slow in recognizing the depth of the problem in Darfur, in the west, where there was also a rebel movement.

Powell traveled to Lake Naivasha, in Kenya, in October to nudge the north-south talks along, expressing confidence that the issues of power-sharing and religious rights could be resolved quickly. That was when he invited Sudanese and Christian rebel leaders to Washington.

But some experts say that concentrating on the north-south conflict, as urged by some American Christian groups, may have encouraged rebellions elsewhere. At the same time, the government cracked down on the rebels, thinking that it could get away with its actions, these experts say.

"When the secretary was in Naivasha, and a major problem was getting worse in Darfur, everyone agreed to deal with the southern problem first and with Darfur later," said John Prendergast, a former African affairs director at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. "That was a monumental diplomatic error."

Administration officials dispute the criticism, saying that the U.S. pressure to resolve the north-south conflict - including President Bush's appointment of former Sen. John C. Danforth as a special envoy - earned the administration the credit in Africa to work on Darfur now.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.