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A U.N. peacekeeping force works in Abyei, a Sudanese town that has seen vicious fighting in recent weeks.
Fresh violence in Sudan is testing U.S. efforts to work with the government there to end violence and dismantle terrorist networks. But as the U.S. envoy lands in Khartoum, Africa analyst Stephen Morrison says progress is in sight for normalized relations with one of the world's most war-ravaged countries.
After the last envoy to Sudan left his post, the White House named Richard Williamson as replacement envoy. "He formulated a pretty aggressive list of performance indicators to table with Khartoum," says Morrison, who directs the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Williamson's message, Morrison says, is, "Look, here are 80 or 90 concrete measures you need to take in some form ... and you need to do this rapidly in order for the United States to feel like you're turning a corner."
The need for normalized relations — for some reasonable way to build Sudanese government action — is urgent. Several weeks ago, the decades-old battle between the north and the south of the country came to a head in the oil-rich town of Abyei, where 90,000 people had to flee their homes because of clashes between government and militia forces. A previous envoy, former Sen. John Danforth (R-MO), had negotiated a peace accord signed in 2005 to avoid just such clashes.
To try to keep the latest violence from spiraling out of control, the new envoy landed Wednesday in Khartoum. That same day, all three of the main U.S. presidential hopefuls released a joint statement condemning the fighting and pledging to make Sudan a priority no matter which one of them wins the White House.
Sudan has been struggling for a long time, but officials are not always thrilled by America's efforts to help, Morrison says.
"From Khartoum's perspective, it has been living under pretty comprehensive U.S. sanctions since '97," he says. "It's been on this list of state sponsors of terror since 1993."
These factors have crippling implications, making it difficult for Khartoum to negotiate with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international organizations, he says.
But both the U.S. and the Sudanese governments are divided internally on how to go forward. Sudan wants more freedom and respect; the U.S. is balancing encouragement with a heavy hand to force change, Morrison says.
For now, the U.S. continues to act in earnest on a seemingly intractable situation, Morrison says, because there are persistent and genuine security concerns. Sudan has been blamed not only for fomenting genocide, but also for sheltering Osama bin Laden. Morrison says bin Laden lived in Khartoum from 1991 to '96, when he fled to Afghanistan under U.S. and Saudi pressure but left behind a network of commercial enterprises and some of his operatives.
Well before Sept. 11, the U.S. was shedding light on the shadowy bin Laden's legacy in Sudan. Morrison says that in the spring of 2000, an interagency U.S. team had engineered a dialogue with key Sudanese officials. After Sept. 11, pressure was stepped up on Sudan to divulge what it knew about the networks.
But the focus on collecting information or fighting global terrorism is gone for the moment, Morrison says. Instead, the priority is getting concrete, tangible evidence that Khartoum is trying to end the violence.
"There has been progress in the last years," Morrison says. "But the main bulk of the United States' interest in Sudan really hinges on trying to consolidate and secure the peace."