U.S. growing more optimistic about fate of Sudan referendum

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 8:23 PM

U.S. officials are growing optimistic that Sudan will fulfill a central part of an American-brokered 2005 peace agreement - and potentially avert a bloody war - by holding a referendum next month that could split the African country in two.

The referendum had been in doubt because of delays in preparations and the Sudanese government's reluctance to let the south secede.

But Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has begun to publicly accept the referendum, and registration for the vote has gone fairly smoothly.

"I am far more optimistic about it than I was six weeks ago or so," said one senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy involved.

Still, risks persist. Perhaps the most serious is the apparent failure to achieve agreement on a parallel vote on the sensitive, oil-rich Abyei region on Sudan's north-south border.

Southern Sudanese are widely expected to choose independence in the Jan. 9 referendum. The southerners, who are largely Christian and animist, have long complained of discrimination by northerners, who are mainly Muslim Arabs.

President Obama's administration has devoted increasingly high-level attention to Sudan, amid worries that Africa's biggest country could erupt in civil war if southerners feel they were deprived of a fair vote.

About 2 million people died in conflict between the north and south before a 2005 peace deal,. The agreement, which the George W. Bush administration considered a major achievement, granted limited autonomy to the south for five years, followed by a vote on independence.

On Tuesday, Bashir emphasized his acceptance of the referendum, telling southerners in a speech that was broadcast: "The decision is yours. If you want unity, you are more than welcome. . . If you want separation, you are also welcome," according to the BBC.

Bashir's government stands to lose more than half its budget if the south, with its lucrative oil reserves, votes to split.

As part of its recent diplomatic effort, the Obama administration has said that it will remove Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism if it honors the peace accord.

That pledge was delivered by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who visited Sudan twice last month. Kerry was seen as an important messenger because of his influence in Congress, which could agree to eventually roll back economic sanctions on Sudan, according to people involved in the diplomatic effort.

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