US brings Sudan in from the cold

Obama to begin dialogue with Khartoum, but wider sanctions will stay in place

In a significant change of tack on dealing with Sudan, US President Barack Obama said yesterday he would end the Bush-era policy of international isolation and seek instead to engage with the government in Khartoum to improve security and peace across the country, including in the ravaged region of Darfur.

Officials insisted that the change of approach did not mean Washington was going soft on the Sudanese government, which has been accused of fomenting the Darfur violence. Instead, the US will be ready to assist in solidifying gains towards peace, but only if the government of President Omar al-Bashir takes the steps expected of it, they said, noting that existing US sanctions against Khartoum due to expire this week will be renewed for now.

The changes are a clear fit with President Obama's wider philosophy of seeking dialogue with countries that had previously been shut off by Washington. A senior Sudanese official said the fresh course reflected the new "Obama spirit" in international relations.

"Sitting on the sidelines is not an option," said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured. "It is up to us and our partners in the international community to make a concerted and sustained effort to help bring lasting peace and stability to Sudan and avoid more of the conflict that has produced a vast sea of human misery."

Mr Obama noted that diplomatic efforts on Sudan should focus both on ending the violence in Darfur as well as the broader aim of implementing the shaky 2005 peace agreement between the North and South that ended Africa's longest-running civil war.

"These two goals must both be pursued simultaneously, with urgency," he said. The treaty, for example, calls for a referendum in the South on succession in 2011. "If the government of Sudan acts to improve the situation on the ground and to advance peace, there will be incentives; if it does not, then there will be increased pressure imposed by the US and the international community," Mr Obama said: "The government of Sudan must meet its responsibilities to take concrete steps in a new direction."

Others on the list of nations that have seen overtures from Washington since Mr Obama took office include Iran, North Korea and Syria. The President's moves to engage with countries that have typically been at odds with the US will not be unrelated to his controversial selection by the Nobel Committee as the winner of this year's peace prize. To date, however, it is hard to point to any single achievement attributable to the new approach. Similarly, it will be months before any new Sudan policies can be judged.

Yesterday saw fresh warnings from the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur of a renewed military build-up in the region, including of troops deployed by the government. "It may signal the impending start of a new cycle of armed confrontations in the area," mission spokesman Kemal Saiki said.

Mrs Clinton insisted the pressure on Khartoum to implement fully the peace treaty and take steps to quell violence in Darfur will remain unrelenting. "Words alone are not enough," she said. "Assessment of progress and decisions regarding incentives and disincentives will be based on verifiable changes in conditions on the ground." At least 200,000 people have died in Darfur since the conflict began six years ago.

An adviser to President Bashir, Ghazi Salahadin said the US carrot-and-stick plan has some "positive points". However, he disputed continuing references in the US statements to genocide.

Human rights groups were holding back before endorsing the new US approach. "While the administration's long-awaited plan seems to include the right elements for a successful strategy, we've been disappointed by their diplomatic efforts to date," said Sam Bell of the Genocide Intervention Network. "The big question now is implementation.... We'll be watching this very closely in the coming weeks and months."