By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 7:01 PM
The U.S. government is stepping up pressure on the leader of Ivory Coast to leave office, imposing new sanctions after appeals by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to resolve an election crisis that is turning increasingly bloody.
The standoff in the African nation threatens to reignite a civil war that killed thousands of people in 2002 and 2003. In addition, Obama administration officials worry that a botched election could set a dangerous precedent, with Africans in several other countries set to go to the polls this year.
The Treasury Department announced the new sanctions Thursday, as President Laurent Gbagbo continued to refuse to hand off power to his old rival, Alassane Ouattara, who has been internationally recognized as the winner of the Nov. 28 election.
The measures freeze U.S. property belonging to Gbagbo, his wife and three of his advisers, and prohibit Americans from doing business with them. Such actions have an echo effect internationally, since major financial institutions often suspend dealings with U.S.-designated targets.
The sanctions follow a U.S. ban on travel by Gbagbo and his associates, and similar targeted measures by European and African countries.
"Essentially what we've wanted to present from the beginning of the crisis . . . is a choice, so on the one hand, [Gbagbo] sees there's a way out for him, should he choose to do the right thing and step down," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy U.S. national security adviser for strategic communications. "If he doesn't, there is going to be a steady ratcheting up of pressure."
At least 200 people have been killed in post-election violence, according to the United Nations.
Ouattara is holed up at a hotel in the country's business capital, Abidjan, protected by U.N. peacekeepers.
The international community has been unusually united on the Ivory Coast crisis. The 16-nation West African group known as ECOWAS has threatened military intervention if Gbagbo doesn't step down, and the U.N. Security Council sent a powerful signal by recognizing his rival's victory.
None of that, however, has moved the recalcitrant Ivorian. And on Friday, the possibility of a military operation seemed to diminish as Ghana said it couldn't contribute troops.
"The problem is, the U.S. and everybody else can do everything right, but if Gbagbo is willing to bring the country down around him and relaunch a conflict, he can probably do that," said Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Most nonhumanitarian U.S. aid to Ivory Coast was suspended after a 1999 coup. Washington has sought to work with European and African countries, the United Nations and international financial institutions to pressure Gbagbo to step down.
The financial noose could further tighten at an upcoming meeting of the Central Bank of West African States, which handles the currency used by Ivory Coast.
A decision could be taken on which of the two declared presidents "gets to control Cote D'Ivoire's currency," said a State Department official, using the country's French name. The official was not authorized to comment on the record.
The November election was supposed to resolve years of political instability that followed the north-south civil war. Gbagbo has been in office for a decade, staying on beyond a mandate originally set to expire in 2005.
Obama tried unsuccessfully to call Gbagbo twice after the election. In early December, Obama sent a letter inviting Gbagbo to Washington to discuss his future and warning of consequences if he clung to power, aides say.
A more detailed letter from Clinton followed, suggesting Gbagbo could move to the United States or receive a position in an international or regional institution if he left peacefully, according to U.S. officials. Similar inducements were offered by France and other African countries.
"They're not endless," the State Department official said of the offers. "The more that things on the ground turn ugly . . . you can't ignore that."
Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.