KHARTOUM, Sudan -- In a rare political snub of one of their own, African leaders deadlocked yesterday on Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir's bid to take over the chairmanship of the African Union.
After meeting in closed session for most of the day at their annual summit, feuding heads of state in the 53-nation African body referred the issue to a special committee. The group could announce a decision as soon as today.
While el-Bashir could still end up with the post, the reluctance of his colleagues to elect him during the opening day of the two-day Khartoum summit was an embarrassing setback for the military leader, who was the only candidate openly vying for the chairmanship.
El-Bashir's bid was met with staunch opposition behind the scenes from several African leaders, who questioned whether his nation's spotty human-rights record in the western Sudan region of Darfur would tarnish the alliance's image.
U.S. officials also questioned whether the Darfur conflict represented a "conflict of interest" for el-Bashir given the African Union's role in deploying nearly 7,000 peacekeepers to the region and mediating peace talks in Nigeria.
International watchdog group Human Rights Watch told summit leaders that el-Bashir's appointment would send an "extraordinarily negative message to civilians in Darfur" and represent "enormous hypocrisy" on the part of the continental organization.
"This is a test for the AU," said Human Rights Watch attorney Reed Brody. "There's a lot of uneasiness about Africa being represented in the world by an international pariah."
The Sudanese government is accused of responding to a rebellion in Darfur by unleashing Arab militias, known as janjaweed, to kill and terrorize residents of the region. More than 180,000 people have died and 2 million have been displaced since the fighting broke out in 2003.
The International Criminal Court is investigating several Sudanese officials for their roles in the conflict. The U.S. government has imposed trade sanctions on Sudan, criticizing the country's alleged links to terrorism and labeling the Darfur crackdown a genocide.
The chairmanship debate largely overshadowed the African Union's Sixth Ordinary Session, which was meant to focus on education and culture.
As talks bogged down yesterday, Sudanese officials, who had been insisting that el-Bashir assume the post, began to play down the issue's importance.
"We don't want to make any cracks in the union," said Sudanese presidential aide Mustafa Osman Ismail as he left the conference hall. "If that means Sudan should withdraw, we will withdraw."
For el-Bashir, the AU chairmanship would represent an opportunity to demonstrate that Sudan is regaining international respect. El-Bashir's supporters say he deserves credit for forging a peace deal last year with southern rebels, ending a 20-year civil war and creating a coalition government. But the separate Darfur rebellion, which picked up just as the southern war quieted down, has been harder to resolve.
Leadership of the AU would give el-Bashir added influence on several key issues, including a proposal to send United Nations peacekeepers to assist AU troops in Darfur. The Sudanese government staunchly opposes the idea.
Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.