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Paving the 'war and destruction' path

International | President Bush gives a diplomatic pass to a brutal Islamist government, yet evidence persists that Khartoum is using U.S. "good faith" to crush the Christian south

Issue: "Staying underground," May 3, 2003

Calling for an end to dictatorships in the Middle East has not prevented the Bush administration from telling one of the world's most brutal dictatorships on African soil to stay the course.

In a written communique delivered to Congress on April 22, President Bush certified to lawmakers that Sudan is "negotiating in good faith" with rebels from the south who have fought a 20-year civil war against Islamic rule. While admitting that "there is still much work remaining," the president asserted, "both sides have made significant progress negotiating a just and comprehensive peace for the people of Sudan."

Those assertions put the National Islamic Front government in Khartoum on equal footing with southern and mostly Christian Sudanese brutalized by the government's long-standing policy of forced Islamization, slavery, and government-induced famine. Last year lawmakers and the president agreed to end that sort of status-quo diplomacy. By failing to distinguish oppressors from victims, they agreed, it had brought no real breakthrough in Sudan's civil war. In addition, the equivocating comes despite evidence the Khartoum regime is undertaking a military buildup to carry out further attacks on the south.

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The formal determination of progress in Sudan is mandated under a law Congress passed last year. The Sudan Peace Act requires the executive branch to report to Congress every six months on whether Khartoum is "engaged in good-faith negotiations" with southern counterparts. It won near-unanimous passage in both the House and Senate. Burden of proof, according to lawmakers, would rest with Khartoum for "abetting and tolerating" human-rights atrocities and obstructing aid to its own citizens. It allowed the president to fund relief efforts and monitoring teams outside the United Nations' Khartoum-approved system.

The law took effect amid much fanfare, with a signing ceremony last October where the president unambiguously declared, "The government of Sudan must choose between the path to peace and the path to continued war and destruction." The law's first six-month progress report, by contrast, emerged as a "stealth release," said Sudan expert Eric Reeves. The administration seemed unconcerned to miss the reporting deadline by one day. Its tardy announcement of findings came from Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, in an after-hours background briefing to the press on April 22 that precluded quoting Mr. Kansteiner by name and for publication. That approach suggests "there is no room for Sudan on this administration's agenda right now," said Mr. Reeves, a Smith College professor who supplied data on government bombing to the State Department for the report.

According to Mr. Reeves and other officials in the region, the Khartoum government has not halted military incursions into the south, even though it signed cease-fire agreements with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, last July and again in October. In January government forces torched villages in Western Upper Nile, rural tribal lands loyal to SPLA but adjacent to government-controlled oil fields.

In the attack, hastily organized recruits from the government's southern Nile port post at Juba joined well-equipped units from Khartoum to fight both civilians and SPLA forces near Tam, Leer, and Nhialdiu. The devastation was evident by air. Yet government forces prohibited civilians from returning to the area. And Khartoum vetoed humanitarian flights of food and other aid by the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan program along with flights by private relief groups. Khartoum also vetoed investigation of the fighting by Civilian Protection Monitoring Teams originally agreed to in cease-fire negotiations that have taken place for more than a year.

Aerial photographs provided to WORLD suggest Khartoum also is repositioning military hardware to better attack the south. Officials working in Sudan witnessed barges delivering T-55 tanks, artillery, and other armored vehicles south along the White Nile. The photos, taken after October, show the redeployments south. At the same time, a government army garrison near the oil-field region has tripled in size. Taken together, this is obvious evidence that Khartoum has violated the cease-fire agreement and does not deserve the president's "good-faith" certification.

American relief workers in the region say that the government's air superiority (the SPLA has no air power) and hardware advantage add up to increased threats to the south's largely unarmed civilian population. Further, it threatens any peace process. SPLA leaders could be forced to trade land for security in the face of Khartoum's newly embedded forces in the south.

With the president's statement, the odds for the SPLA at any bargaining table are even longer. President Bush made only one specific reference to recent attacks, saying, "Sporadic military activities, primarily but not exclusively by the government, have hindered these efforts and must stop."

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