Speak now

April 23, 2006

A breakthrough is possible soon in resolving the bloody, 3-year-old ethnic conflict in Darfur, but only if the world community rises up and demands it.

Reignited peace talks between the Sudanese Islamist regime in Khartoum and the Darfur rebels are believed to be on the verge of success or collapse by the end of this month. Their fate will likely determine whether displaced black Muslim tribal villagers from Darfur can return home in the foreseeable future or whether the expanding conflict rages on - inflicting rape, robbery and murder on millions of innocents.

America's chief envoy to the region, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, is betting a lot of marbles on the talks' success. He's nursing relations with Khartoum leaders believed to be directing the ethnic cleansing of Darfur because he believes their cooperation offers the best hope for tribal villagers to rebuild their lives. The alternative to the regime's acceptance of a U.N. peacekeeping force, he notes, is armed invasion, "and that's a very big, serious challenge."

But invasion is not a likely alternative; in the wake of Iraq, the world community doesn't have the stomach for it. The most likely option to a negotiated peace is the status quo - men, women and children trapped in a hellish existence as diplomats dither.

After a year or so on the job, Mr. Zoellick is starting to sound like former Sen. John C. Danforth, who served as U.S. envoy to peace talks that ended the 20-year conflict between Khartoum and rebels in the south. Urgent and idealistic appeals for the U.S. to simply stop the violence fail to grasp, both said, the complexity of myriad crosscurrents at play.

And yet as the horror of Darfur spreads across the border to Chad, not only eliminating a haven but also raising the prospect that Darfur villagers could be caught in a proxy war between enemy regimes in Khartoum and N'djamena, the urgency and frustration only build.

This should be the moment to end it. But the U.S. can't achieve that alone. It needs Europe, it needs Africa and it needs Asia, particularly China, which treads far too carefully to protect its access to Sudanese oil. Support is also vital from Arab nations to stop the genocide of their fellow Muslims.

Rallies are scheduled for Washington and other U.S. cities a week from Sunday to build pressure on President Bush and Congress to "Save Darfur." Similar pressure should also be focused on their international partners.

Ethnic conflicts can't be brutally muscled into resolution. They have to be coaxed, cajoled and only strategically coerced. With a huge amount of effort and luck, that process could be under way even before the rallies.

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