Sudan at a crossroads

August 06, 2007

The United Nations Security Council's decision last week to send 26,000 peacekeepers to Darfur could mean a turning point in the long and brutal conflict there, but not necessarily in a positive direction.

In order to move toward peace and stability, the ruling regime in Khartoum must make good on its promises to allow the blue helmets into the country; rebel groups in Darfur must join together in a unified force to negotiate a comprehensive settlement; and the Sudanese government must live up to the terms of the north-south peace agreement reached two years ago, which appears to be unraveling.

That's a tall order. But the alternative could well be a spread of the chaos through Africa's largest nation as other rebel groups see violence as their only option for sharing in Sudan's rich resources, now controlled by a small elite.

So, for all those activists and ordinary citizens in the United States and around the world who have been moved by the plight of the 200,000 Darfur villagers killed and 2 million displaced over the past four years, this is a time for vigilance.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the Islamic leader believed to have directed a genocidal campaign against the black Africans of Darfur using the savage janjaweed horseback militia, makes diplomatic promises but rarely follows through. If he continues to block U.N. peacekeepers from entering his country, swift and severe sanctions should result.

At the same time, the rebel groups, meeting this weekend in Tanzania, hurt their own cause through infighting that must now be put aside. Mr. al-Bashir is in no hurry to share wealth and power with the people of Darfur and give them a role in the national government. After striking such an arrangement with rebels in the south to end that 20-year civil war, he has seemed determined to crush the Darfur rebellion so as not to encourage others. Disunity in the rebel ranks makes victory easier for him.

Another test of Mr. al-Bashir's intentions is his willingness to live up to the promises made in the north-south peace deal negotiated by former Sen. John C. Danforth, acting as U.S. emissary. If the Sudanese president fails to honor that much-heralded accord, further negotiations with him seem pointless.

And yet, for the moment at least, the best strategy is to take Mr. al-Bashir at his word that he wants peace. Even China, which has been the Khartoum regime's patron and protector, is losing patience with the mayhem that threatens its oil supplies.

A well-equipped U.N. force is due in Darfur by October. Its speedy arrival is critical to a turn for the better in this sad saga.

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