U.S. envoy Gration says Sudan's peace accord is in peril

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Time is running out to salvage a peace accord that ended Africa's longest-running war, a key U.S. official said Wednesday, but he rejected suggestions that the Obama administration is not paying enough attention to the political turmoil in Sudan.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, the special envoy to Sudan, acknowledged to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that preparations for a critical element of the peace accord -- a referendum on independence for southern Sudan -- are behind schedule. Many analysts fear that southern Sudan's secession could result in renewed fighting.

"We have to redouble our efforts," Gration said, adding, "I think it's possible to get done everything we need to get done, but we can't waste another minute."

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) asked the envoy whether it would make his job easier if Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice "took a more visible role in this, so as to heighten the level of importance that our American government places on this issue."

Wicker also read a letter from Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) calling on Obama to put those two senior officials more directly in charge of Sudan policy.

Gration responded that Rice is already "working the issue very hard" and that Clinton "has been superb." He added: "She continues to help in every way she can."

Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) echoed Wicker's concerns. Kerry told Gration: "I think you ought to get a little more leverage on this effort, because I don't think it's going to happen at the current pace."

Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the national intelligence director, has said that of all the countries at risk of experiencing a widespread massacre in the next five years, "a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan."

The referendum, expected to be held in January, will be about allowing southern Sudan, which is mostly Christian and animist, to secede from the Arabic-speaking Muslim north. Many analysts have expressed concern that tensions over the vote, and the fate of oil reserves along the potential new border, could trigger a resumption of a two-decade war that led to the deaths of 2 million people.

Gration said important issues such as defining the new borders and the division of oil revenues must be resolved. In addition, he said, he is worried about voter registration for southern Sudanese living elsewhere.

"They have to register people outside, in 14 different nations, and they don't have a system achieved to do that," he said.

He noted that a recent national Sudanese election was marred by violations of civil liberties and harassment of opposition groups. "We have to take lessons from the election," he said.

The 2005 peace agreement provided for religious and political autonomy in southern Sudan until the referendum, set for 2011.

John Norris, executive director of the anti-genocide Enough Project, criticized Gration after the hearing. Norris said in a statement:

"There still seems to be a real reluctance to take concrete measures and impose tangible costs for Sudanese President [Omar Hassan] al-Bashir's continued abuses. . . . In order to prevent a return to full-scale, national war, the U.S. must marshal more resources, exert more pressure, and hold all parties accountable."

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