Despite obstacles, Darfur pact met with cautious optimism



JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Sudan's government has a long history of reneging on peace agreements, factions of the rebels aren't on board and the African Union doesn't have the capacity to oversee and enforce a new peace deal for Darfur.

But despite the many threats to the new agreement, signed Friday in Abuja, Nigeria, Darfur experts believe the fragile pact could significantly improve life for millions of people displaced in the brutal three-year conflict, largely because Sudan's government and the rebels feel new and real pressure to end the fighting.

"There's every reason to be extremely cautious about this one," said Stephen Morrison, director of the African program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. But "I think there's a change going on. You can make an argument that both sides are reassessing what they're going to get out of Darfur."

The conflict in western Sudan began in early 2003, when rebels, mostly from black African farming tribes, took up arms against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, demanding greater self-government and a bigger share of the country's revenues.

Sudan's government responded by arming local Arab militias, called the Janjaweed, to help put down the rebellion. The raiders on horseback, backed by government bombers, killed tens of thousands of people in the region, burning houses, raping women and driving 2 million people from their homes. The United Nations has called the conflict one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, and the United States called it genocide.

Under intense international pressure, Sudan's government and the rebels declared a cease-fire in 2004. But the deal was widely violated by both sides, and repeated peace talks proved fruitless until last week.

What has changed, analysts say, is that the Darfur rebels, in recent months, have seen much of their political backing evaporate. The government of Chad, which borders the Darfur region, has for years provided the rebels with a haven and arms. But President Idriss Deby may be on his way out after elections last week, and "whoever comes next could be closer to Khartoum," Morrison said.

Support from Sudan's other well-known rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the south of the country, also has dried up. That group, which signed a peace deal with the government in late 2004 to end 20 years of civil war, is trying to build a government in the semi-autonomous region.

Khartoum, as a result, no longer sees the Darfur rebels as such a political threat. The peace deal with southern Sudan has been a mostly positive experience. And with so much international focus on abuses in Darfur, "they're feeling they have to get on the other side of this thing if they're ever going to ... get out of the pariah column" of nations, Morrison said.

Bringing peace to Darfur will be a tough job, however, even if both sides feel pressure to comply with the new agreement. The new deal calls for the Janjaweed militiamen and the Darfur rebels to lay down their arms, and for rebels to be given thousands of jobs in Sudan's military and police forces.

But the African Union, the only international body monitoring the region, doesn't have enough troops to oversee the disarmament. Sudan's government said in recent days that it might reverse its longtime opposition to U.N. troops in Darfur and allow in a contingent if a peace deal were signed. For the pact to work, "we ought to be pushing hard on that now," Morrison said. "It's really incumbent on the U.N. Security Council to pick this up and move on it."

Because a U.N. force could be in Darfur in August or September at the earliest, however, the international community also needs to give additional aid to the African Union in the interim, he said, to ensure that those forces can effectively monitor the start of the disarmament process.

The peace deal "is a very important step, there's no question," said Leslie Lefkow, an expert on Darfur with Human Rights Watch. "But this is not going to result in immediate change on the ground. We need implementation. And we need a stronger, more robust force coming in to do it."

One of the biggest worries with the new pact, she said, is that the two smaller rebel groups that refused to sign Friday could step up violence and derail the agreement.

Having a "strong international force on the ground will be important as a deterrent factor," she said.

Morrison, however, said he thought that efforts to spoil the deal by the smallest of the two recalcitrant rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement, could be managed, and that the larger group, a splinter from the rebels that signed Friday, probably would not try hard to thwart the deal.

The bigger threat, he said, is that Khartoum will renege on promises to protect the disarming rebels and they will defect, rejoining the splinter organizations still in the field.

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