By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009; A09
The Obama administration's new policy toward Sudan, formally announced Monday, turns the spotlight back on where the troubled nation's problems first began: the split between the Islamic north and the largely animist and Christian south.
Although the world's attention has been focused on the tragedy in the Darfur region of western Sudan, administration officials argued Monday that a faltering peace accord that ended Africa's longest-running conflict is under increasing strain and needs to be repaired. If that deal -- brokered by the Bush administration in 2005 -- collapses, officials and analysts say, then hope will be lost for a solution to Darfur. The two-decade conflict between north and south led to the deaths of 2 million people.
Alex de Waal, a Sudan analyst with the Social Science Research Council, said the emphasis on the north-south conflict is significant.
"What this document is saying is, it was a mistake to lose that focus [on the peace agreement]. And we must get our priorities right," he said. "Darfur is part of Sudan, and if the rest of Sudan falls apart, you're never going to solve Darfur."
Still, many analysts think the Darfur conflict spiraled out of control in 2003 because the United States was so focused on resolving the north-south civil war that it ignored signs that the government in Khartoum was secretly behind brutal clashes in Darfur that ultimately led to the deaths of more than 300,000 people. Now the Obama administration hopes to avoid making the same mistake.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters under ground rules of anonymity, said that "for quite some time, policy has been understandably focused on the urgent crisis in Darfur, and [north-south peace agreement] implementation fell behind."
The official added: "We're dealing with a different timeline in this administration. There are a set of fundamentally different dynamics that have to be addressed in a very short period of time."
During last year's presidential campaign, Obama campaigned on the promise of getting tough with the Sudanese government, particularly over Darfur. But activists and lawmakers complained that his administration has offered conflicting signals in recent months. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a policy that will feature rewards and punishments for Sudanese leaders based on whether they meet benchmarks in three areas: Darfur, the north-south agreement and counterterrorism.
The policy appeared less accommodating toward the Sudanese government than the approach suggested by the U.S. envoy, retired Air Force Major Gen. J. Scott Gration, who has pushed for normalizing relations. However, the new strategy adopted his emphasis on the north-south agreement and on engaging, rather than isolating, the government, analysts said. The policy document also emphasized that Gration will play the "leading role in pursuing our Sudan strategy," despite calls from some humanitarian groups for his replacement.
The 2005 peace agreement gave southerners religious and political autonomy and a role in a unity government until 2011, when a referendum is supposed to be held in the south on whether it will secede. The accord also called for national elections next year.
But activists and officials say the Sudanese government, loath to lose the oil-rich south, has dragged its feet on preparations for the votes. Inter-tribal fighting has increased in the south, and some observers say it is abetted by the government.
Among the benchmarks Sudan will be expected to achieve are progress on election preparations, passage of a law to hold the 2011 referendum and finalizing the boundary between north and south, officials said.
Officials did not describe the punishments or rewards in store for Sudan, saying they were in a classified document. But Sudan has been seeking normalization of relations with the U.S. government, an end to economic sanctions and removal from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Officials said the U.S. government will continue to refuse to deal with Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court in the Darfur killings. Instead, it has held talks with one of his senior advisers and other officials in his government.
U.S. officials emphasized that Sudan would not be rewarded if it simply made progress in one area, such as counterterrorism, but would have to show advances across the board.
The policy got a positive reception from many Sudan advocates and members of Congress.
"We now have a Sudan-wide policy . . . instead of shifting back and forth and allowing Khartoum to play the south off against Darfur," said John Prendergast, head of the Enough anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress.
The emphasis on the north-south agreement "is very important, because the south was beginning to feel abandoned," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a leading force in Congress on Sudan.
Even the Khartoum government seemed relieved to see a policy in place, although some of its officials criticized the continued emphasis on sanctions.
"We hope that this will end the debate among U.S. officials, and we hope that now they will think with one mind and speak with one tongue," Ghazi Salah Eddin Atabani, a senior adviser to the Sudanese government, told Sudanese television, according to the Associated Press.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.