By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 8:50 PM
The Obama administration, worried that an upcoming referendum in Sudan could lead to renewed bloodshed, has begun an urgent diplomatic effort to rescue the American-backed peace plan there.
President Obama will meet with two of Sudan's leaders next week at the United Nations, in the first such contact of his presidency. The Sept. 24 session comes less than four months before a referendum on independence for southern Sudan.
U.S. officials are pressing the country's Islamist government to step up preparations for the vote. Those preparations have been running well behind schedule, and many fear that a botched election could lead to a resumption of the 21-year conflict.
Sudanese advocacy groups, which have assailed Obama for a lack of action on a key theme from his presidential campaign, welcomed the news.
"This is one of those every-once-in-a-while opportunities to influence a situation that is fast deteriorating," said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough project, an anti-genocide group.
The Sudan meeting will be led by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. U.S. officials have been urging senior representatives of other countries to attend, to show unified support for the peace plan.
To get ready for the talks, the Obama administration has been holding daily inter-agency meetings for the past two weeks. Senior officials - including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and national security adviser James L. Jones -have called Sudanese leaders to press for progress.
Last week, special envoy Scott Gration traveled to Sudan to lay out a package of incentives and penalties aimed at pushing the government in Khartoum to support the Jan. 9 vote.
"We are sending a very clear message to Khartoum, the Sudanese government and the international community that we are paying attention and we are going to roll up our sleeves and do everything we can to make sure this referendum goes off without a hitch," Obama told Sirius XM Radio on Tuesday.
The 2005 peace accord was one of President George W. Bush's top foreign-policy accomplishments. It created a five-year period of autonomy for the Christian and animist south, followed by the referendum. Polls indicate that the southerners, most of whom are black and complain of discrimination by the Arab north, will choose independence.
Southern Sudanese officials say that the national government, led by Gen. Omar al-Bashir, has been dragging its feet on referendum preparations. The north stands to lose one-third of its land and 80 percent of its oil reserves if the south breaks away.
Gration told reporters that Obama's attendance at the U.N. meeting "will elevate Sudan on the world stage and make the international community pay a little bit more attention to what is happening."
Under its incentives package, the Obama administration is offering to allow increased investment in Sudan if the referendum is peaceful and credible.
If the north and south reach agreement on post-referendum issues, the administration will upgrade diplomatic relations by sending an ambassador to Khartoum, officials said.
Finally, if the peace accord is fulfilled and a separate conflict in the Darfur area is resolved, the administration will work to remove restrictions on foreign investment and lift economic sanctions, officials said.
If Sudan's government does not make progress, though, it could face added sanctions, officials said.
Bashir and other senior officials have been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and war crimes in connection with the conflict in Darfur, where at least 300,000 people have died as a result of fighting or disease.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the court, is visiting Washington this week to urge officials to press the Darfur issue at the U.N. meeting next week.
In particular, he wants Obama to insist on the arrest of Ahmad Harun, the governor of Southern Kordofan, which is near the contested north-south border.
"Bashir is showing he can defy international will by appointing Harun to a big role," despite the official's indictment on charges of crimes against humanity, Moreno-Ocampo said.
"We need President Obama's leadership and the political will of the rest" of the international community to have him removed from the job and detained, he said in an interview.
A White House official said that the issue of accountability for the devastation in Darfur will be on the agenda, but that the Harun case probably will not be discussed during the hour-long meeting.
"Our priority right now is literally moving ballots, voter eligibility" and other election issues, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank about the meeting.