More U.S. diplomats head to Sudan before vote

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010

Senior U.S. officials said Friday that more American diplomats were being dispatched to Sudan and that President Obama was getting daily briefings on preparations for a referendum that could divide the troubled country in two.

The officials acknowledged that major steps have to be taken to ensure that the referendum is held on time in January. For example, Sudan has to hire 10,000 workers by mid-November to do voter registration, said the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration.

Meanwhile, U.S.-mediated talks on a companion referendum, on the fate of the oil-rich border town of Abyei, have broken down. A new set of negotiations is scheduled for the end of the month in Ethiopia, officials said.

Under a 2005 peace accord brokered by the Bush administration, the south, which is largely Christian and animist, will be allowed to choose independence from the mostly Islamic north. Abyei gets to decide which side it will belong to.

Gration acknowledged that the north and south remain far apart.

"With time running out, the parties must make a strategic commitment to work together to avoid war," he told reporters.

Analysts fear that if the referendums don't occur on time, Africa's longest civil war could reignite. The central government in Sudan opposes the secession of the south, which has most of the country's oil reserves. But the region is expected to vote to break away.

Samantha Power, a member of the National Security Council, said Obama was getting daily briefings on the situation.

"It is impossible to overstate the degree of high-level attention being given to Sudan at the White House," she said. She added that the U.S. government remains "committed to on-time referendums in both Abyei and southern Sudan."

Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, said additional U.S. personnel were being sent to provincial capitals in southern Sudan, which "will nearly triple our diplomatic presence" in the south compared with earlier this year. No specific numbers were available.

Many advocacy groups have accused the Obama administration of not prioritizing Sudan until recently.

Michael Abramowitz, director of the genocide-prevention program at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, recently visited Sudan to assess the risks of mass violence after the vote. He said the government in the north seemed to be dragging its heels on preparations for the referendum.

"The south is really counting on this referendum," Abramowitz said. "If it doesn't happen, there will be severe problems."

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