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.
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.
Activists have been more critical, saying the policy has produced few results. John Prendergast, who dealt with African affairs in the Clinton White House, wrote in a recent report that "senior level officials in the Obama administration have been largely absent" on Sudan, allowing policy divisions to flare.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, favors a harder line on the Sudanese government, while Obama's special envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, has argued for more incentives, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
Senior administration officials deny that Sudan has received the short shrift. They say they have been working behind the scenes to build international consensus vital to the peace accord's success.
For example, Vice President Biden discussed the Sudan situation with African leaders, including South Sudan President Salva Kiir, in a visit to the continent in June. Biden got a commitment from Egypt, Sudan's northern neighbor, to support the referendum, according to senior administration officials - an important breakthrough.
Obama attended a June meeting between national security adviser James L. Jones and former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki, a key player in implementing the referendum results, officials say. Obama also has raised the Sudan issue with foreign leaders, including President Hu Jintao of China, which is a major investor in the African country, officials say.
"Building some multilateral consensus about what needs to be achieved . . . is absolutely critical to expanding the tools that are available and making the prospect of pressure more significant," said one senior official, speaking under White House ground rules of anonymity.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials say they don't have many ways to further penalize Sudan's government. "It's important to recognize how heavily sanctioned Sudan is right now," said the senior U.S. official.
At a meeting this month, top officials sought to lay out a specific strategy for the months leading up to the referendum.
There has been intense internal debate over tactics and sequencing, with some officials concerned about easing pressure on Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, at a time when Darfur is still plagued by violence and the peace process there has stalled, authorities say.
Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges for the atrocities in Darfur.
Still, officials dismissed the idea that there was any division over the importance of focusing on the referendum.
"That's got to be our priority," Rice said in a telephone interview, adding: "We've got to be able to continue to address the other concerns we have in Sudan, even as we do that."
Among the incentives the U.S. government could offer are upgrading relations and removing Sudan from the list of terrorism supporters.
In a sign of stepped-up efforts, the State Department announced last week that a former ambassador, Princeton Lyman, had been dispatched to Sudan with a team to help negotiate the remaining sticking points.
Although officials emphasized Lyman would not replace Gration, the move was viewed by analysts as a victory for the State Department, where some Africa hands have felt sidelined by the special envoy's office.
The administration has also sent a former ambassador, R. Barrie Walkley, to head the U.S. consulate in Juba, South Sudan's capital. His staff has doubled to 34 people, with 20 more expected to be added in the next few months, officials said.
Gration said in response to e-mailed questions that he thought the referendums could occur on time. "We are determined to avoid destabilization or delay," he wrote.