U.N. May Upgrade Darfur Peace Force

The Bush administration and the United Nations appear to be serious about putting a more robust peacekeeping force on the ground in the Darfur region of western Sudan. The idea is to turn a beleaguered and under-funded African Union force into a blue-helmeted U.N. force.

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The United Nations is making plans to take on a new peacekeeping mission: Darfur, in Western Sudan. Right now, there is an African Union force there, but that mission is underfunded and understaffed, and has not been able to stop brutal raids on villages and refugee camps. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporter:

Former Marine captain Brian Steidle was a U.S. military advisor to the African Union force in Darfur until last year. He said he quickly recognized that the A.U. did not have the mandate nor the resources it needed to halt, what the U.S. has been calling, a genocide.

Mr. BRIAN STEIDLE (Former Military Advisor, African Union): That's ultimately why I left the mission. I quit my job as a U.S. representative with the African Union, because after working with them for six months, I realized that they cannot be successful in the role that they are in, simply to monitor the ceasefire, and not to stop the violence.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration promised to use its presidency of the U.N. Security Council this month to pave the way for a United Nations force with a stronger mandate to protect civilians. Though they've run into opposition in the Council, U.S. officials describe this as a matter of urgency. At the same time, they've been reluctant to call the AU mission a failure. Steidle says there is a reason for this.

Mr. STEIDLE: We've used this cliché of African solutions to African problems, which has allowed us to, basically, hands-off, throw money at the African Union, allow them to do their mission. And so, we've helped them wimp along, but we've never been able to provide them with all of the correct tools to actually complete this mission.

KELEMEN: What sort of tools a U.N. force would have is still a big question. Bush administration officials suggest that the AU troops already there should be, as they say, rehatted, to make up the bulk of a U.N. blue helmeted force. At the United Nations, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, is calling for something more than just rehatting. He wants a highly mobile force, with air support and reconnaissance, from NATO nations.

Mr. JEAN-MARIE GUEHENNO (Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, the United Nations): Nothing would be worse than just running into a situation without the right capacity. That's a recipe for failure. And I think we owe it to the people of Darfur to have an operation that will really save lives and consolidate a ceasefire.

KELEMEN: With more than 70,000 U.N. peacekeepers in conflict zones around the world, and a U.N. force elsewhere in Sudan, which needs more troop commitments, Guehenno is worried about getting needed resources for Darfur.

Mr. GUEHENNO: It's very difficult to get more and more troops in more and more peacekeeping situations. That's my real concern. How many countries will step up the challenge?

KELEMEN: President Bush has been on the phone, recently, with NATO's secretary general, as well as other European leaders, and NATO officials said the alliance is talking about doing more of what it has already done, training officers and airlifting troops. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, John Hillen, also suggested that NATO will probably focus on what he calls enabling capabilities.

Mr. JOHN HILLEN (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs): Right now, I think that a larger involve around helping with mobility, helping with command and control, helping with lift, and helping with logistics and training, not big troop movements of NATO forces or an intervention, or anything of that sort.

KELEMEN: There is not expectation that the U.S. would have boots on the ground, but activists like Brian Steidle hope the U.S. will offer intelligence resources, and perhaps even help enforce a no-fly zone to stop air attacks on villages and refugee camps.

Mr. STEIDLE: We need to stop talking about it, and talking about genocide, and put some action behind these words, and actually do something to give these people safety on the group. These people have nothing. Their families have been killed. Their villages have been burnt. And they deserve to at least live in a safe place, so they can start to rebuild their lives.

KELEMEN: That's the message he is taking across the United States in the weeks ahead, part of a campaign for the Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of religious and human rights groups. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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