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As Darfur Waits

Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page B06

LIKE A RESCUE squad that hears of an accident but then stops by a 7-Eleven for coffee, the world is ambling toward Darfur, the western Sudanese province where genocide is underway. It's been months since the need for an African Union force to protect Darfur's civilians became obvious, and still there are only 300 or so African Union troops there. With each week, more women are raped and more villages attacked. On Thursday relief officials in one camp for displaced people reported 5,000 recent arrivals, the product of attacks on 10 villages by the government-backed Janjaweed militia. And still a robust contingent of foreign troops is awaited.

Why the delay? Partly because of views such as those of Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram. "It has to be done in a measured way," the envoy said recently of the world's response to genocide. "We shouldn't go overboard." But the delay is also made possible by the artful blurring of responsibility for bringing it about. Nobody is held accountable.

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Sudan's government, which has spent weeks excluding humanitarian workers from Darfur and promising to repel foreign peacekeepers with force, now says it is delighted to welcome an African Union force into its territory. In a briefing to the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, Sudan's foreign minister insisted that his government wanted foreign troops as soon as possible, and that it would be happy to accept more than the 3,500 that the African Union is offering. What Sudan's government does not advertise is the restrictive mandate under which these troops would be deployed. The foreigners should, in Sudan's view, be restricted to monitoring a cease-fire. They should not presume to protect civilians but should report incidents to Sudan's government -- which has proved itself utterly uninterested in protecting its own civilians.

Then there is the African Union itself. Its leaders have been offering loudly to send troops to Darfur. But now that they are faced with a government that welcomes them, they say it will take another two or three weeks to win approval from all member governments for the deployment. In another measure of the African Union's urgent commitment to combating genocide, its officials recently delayed a meeting on Darfur on the ground that they had not received the per diem they thought due them.

Finally there is the role of the United States and its allies. The Bush administration is comfortable pushing resolutions through the Security Council and then calling upon the African Union to deploy: "My hope is that the African Union moves rapidly to help save lives," Mr. Bush declared in the debate on Thursday. But if he is serious about that hope, he needs to try harder to make the deployment happen. The United States needs to ensure that the mandate under which peacekeepers deploy is not restrictive. It must encourage the African Union to make haste. And it must get ready for the time when the African Union comes up with a firm deployment proposal. The African troops will need vehicles, helicopters and prefabricated housing. All this needs to be prepared now, in concert with other members of NATO. Otherwise the interminable delays in getting help to Darfur will stretch out even longer.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company