U.S. envoy pushes for Darfur peace deal before Sudanese elections

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; 8:39 PM

NAIROBI -- The U.S. special envoy to Sudan warned Wednesday that efforts to bring peace to the country's troubled Darfur region could become less of a priority for the Obama administration if a full-fledged peace agreement is not reached before Sudanese elections scheduled for mid-April.

"There are going to be a lot of things that are keeping us from focusing on Darfur," retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration told reporters here. "That's why we have this little window where we really need to get the framework solidified."

Gration's comments came as the Sudanese government and one of Darfur's main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement, resumed talks Wednesday in the Qatari capital, Doha, in a bid to conclude a formal peace accord by a March 15 deadline. But since the two sides signed a preliminary treaty last month, violence has flared in Darfur and some disagreements have emerged. Moreover, none of Darfur's other main rebel groups are engaged in peace talks with the government.

Further complicating matters are the upcoming elections, Sudan's first multiparty vote in nearly a quarter-century. Afterward, Gration said, the focus will be on reaching agreements and enacting other measures ahead of a January 2011 referendum in which South Sudan will vote on whether to secede.

"In the next two weeks I think we are going to see a real big focus on the election," Gration said. "There is not going to be a lot of bandwidth to be doing Darfur and negotiations."

The possibility that Darfur -- a top U.S. priority since the Bush administration declared in 2004 that a genocide was unfolding there -- could be placed on the back burner reflects Sudan's tenuous state as the country enters one of its most decisive periods since achieving independence in 1956. It is also likely to displease influential American activist groups that have urged Washington to end the violence and hold the Sudanese government accountable for alleged war crimes.

The conflict in Darfur has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, and more than 2.7 million people have been driven from their homes, according to U.N. figures. It began in 2003 when rebels rose against the government, accusing it of politically and economically marginalizing the sprawling western region. The government retaliated by unleashing its army and proxy Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, which targeted Darfur's mostly black African population, razing villages and raping women.

Last year, the International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for committing crimes against humanity in Darfur -- the first sitting head of a nation to face such charges.

On Wednesday, Gration said Bashir should respond to the charges, but he stopped short of labeling the violence genocide. Until last year, he said, the international community's focus on Darfur had taken precedence over the 2005 peace deal between North and South Sudan, which ended a 20-year civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people.

"Frankly, we were pulled off message and off focus when Darfur happened, and Darfur sort of overshadowed what was happening in terms of implementation of the" north-south peace agreement, Gration said.

Gration, who heads to Doha this week partly to help bring other Darfur rebel groups to the table, said the current treaty has a better chance of success than previous failed peace deals. A key reason, he said, is a rapprochement between Chad and Sudan, which have accused each other of backing rebel groups. "This is one of the first very serious agreements we've had," he said.

Still, there are major differences to bridge. The Justice and Equality Movement, for instance, wants next month's elections postponed so that the group ands its supporters in Darfur can participate -- a move the government is unlikely to support.

Gration acknowledged that even if a full-fledged agreement is reached, it would only partially solve Darfur's problems.

"If there's going to be a comprehensive and lasting peace, all of the rebel groups really need to be involved," he said.

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