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Obama administration intensifies efforts in Sudan

Young activists in Sudan, where political dissent is rarely tolerated, seize on a small opening before April's elections to educate voters.

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Monday, August 30, 2010; 7:35 AM

The Obama administration, which came to office promising stronger leadership on Sudan, is now scrambling to salvage a 2005 U.S.-backed peace accord and prevent Africa's largest nation from sliding back into civil war.

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In recent weeks, the administration has doubled its diplomatic presence in South Sudan and dispatched a respected former ambassador to help with negotiations on an independence referendum for the region, which is scheduled for January.

President Obama and his advisers are also mulling over incentives to persuade Sudan's leadership to cooperate with the referendum, officials say.

Former officials and activist groups worry that the flurry of action may be too little, too late. They say the Obama administration's efforts over the past year have been hobbled by infighting and a lack of high-level attention.

Read Jeff Stein's Spy Talk post on the CIA training Sudan's spies as Obama officials fight over policy

"President Obama's approach to Sudan may well lead to his being the one who 'lost' Sudan and the opportunities for peace" in the 2005 accord, said Roger Winter, who helped negotiate the deal that ended Sudan's 21-year civil war. He added, however, that the recently intensified diplomatic effort offers some hope.

The peace agreement provided for religious and political autonomy for the Christian and animist south until the referendum. Polls indicate that the mostly black south will vote to secede from the largely Arab Muslim north, its antagonist in the civil war.

But the Sudanese government, dominated by northerners, has not reached agreement with the south on such issues as demarcating the border and figuring out how to divide revenue from the country's oil fields, located mainly in the south. Election preparations are behind schedule.

"We're really getting close to the drop-dead date when it becomes almost impossible to hold the referendum in January" for legal and logistical reasons, said Jon Temin, a Sudan specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

A delay in that referendum - and a separate one that will determine who controls the oil-rich border town of Abyei - could reignite the civil war. Such a conflict might dwarf the one that has left at least 300,000 people dead in Sudan's western Darfur area, analysts say.

After months of internal debate, the Obama administration unveiled a policy last October that would reward or punish Sudan's government based on whether it met benchmarks regarding: Darfur, the north-south agreement and counterterrorism.

"Implementing the policy has been slow, but it has picked up" recently, with the diplomatic mini-surge, said Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of the South Sudan regional government's mission in Washington.


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