WASHINGTON - In the wake of an unprecedented visit to Khartoum by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sudan's foreign minister Wednesday promised that his government will halt raiding by government-backed Arab militias in the country's Darfur region, but independent groups say the international community should not delay any further before taking measures to punish the regime and prepare a military intervention.
"The government has made similar promises so many times before that the world simply can't take it seriously," said Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, a Washington-based grassroots group that has collected more than 20,000 signatures on a petition urging Powell, who visited a concentration camp in Darfur Wednesday, to declare the situation "genocide" and push for an immediate U.S.-led intervention.
"The Khartoum government is clearly responsible for the genocide taking place in Darfur, and yet it continues to deny its role and obstruct humanitarian access to the region," said Booker. "Rather than traveling halfway around the world to hold talks with this murderous regime, Powell could achieve much more by simply uttering one word - 'genocide.'"
Powell's visit appeared designed to focus global attention on the situation in Darfur and exert more direct pressure on the National Islamic Front (NIF) government headed by Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir with whom he met briefly Tuesday. It was the highest-level U.S. visit to Khartoum in almost 30 years.
During the meeting, Powell reportedly warned that Washington will not normalize relations with Khartoum until it enters into serious peace talks with rebels in Darfur and fully cooperates with international relief efforts to return about 1.3 million people who since early last year have been forced to flee a scorched-earth campaign carried out by rampaging Arab militias, called the Janjaweed, and government bombing.
As many as 30,000 people reportedly have been killed to date, while an estimated 200,000 fled across the border into Chad. The rest have been displaced within Darfur, as many as 800,000 of them herded into camps where, according to a UN team that visited the region in late April, they are suffering high rates of malnutrition.
Given the restrictions imposed by the government in getting relief supplies to the needy, experts, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have warned that more than 300,000 people are likely to die by the end of the year even if humanitarian agencies were given unimpeded access immediately. On Friday, the UN's World Food Program (WPF) said at least 300,000 of the displaced go without any food this month because of security conditions.
Powell is also reported to have warned Bashir and other Sudanese officials that the U.S. will impose sanctions against the government if its full cooperation is not forthcoming. While Powell visited Darfur Wednesday, and with Annan expected on Thursday, the U.S. delegation at the UN Security Council circulated a draft resolution calling for the immediate imposition of an arms embargo and travel ban against Janajaweed leaders to be followed 30 days later by similar action against government officials if action is not taken.
Whether Khartoum's leaders, who have insisted for much of the past month that reports by the UN, the media, and relief agencies are exaggerated, will indeed take action, however, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, however, pressure on the administration to take stronger action is rising back in Washington. In addition to Africa Action's petition, which was endorsed last week by the entire Congressional Black Caucus, the US Committee for Refugees (USCR) has also called on Bush to declare the situation in Darfur "genocide" and "urgently expand our capacity to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to the refugees in Chad and the internally displaced in Darfur."
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group (ICG) took out a rare ad in the New York Times op-ed page calling on the Security Council not only to apply targeted sanctions against specific individuals but also to "authorize ultimate military intervention" if Khartoum does not stop the Janjaweed, grant full access to humanitarian groups and international monitors throughout the province, and launch good-faith negotiations with rebel groups in the region.
"Anything less," the two groups said, "will run the risk of all of us in the international community - ten years after the Rwandan genocide - having once more hundreds of thousands of deaths on our collective conscience."
Last week, two senior Republican senators, Mike DeWine of Ohio and John McCain of Arizona, also compared the situation to Rwanda, where some 800,000 people were killed in just two months, and called for immediate action, including providing financial and logistical support to countries that are willing to provide peacekeeping forces, as well as urging the Security Council to impose sanctions.
At the same time, Congress agreed to provide US$95 million in emergency funding to help the refugees, although it defeated an amendment by Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden to add an additional $118 million.
The roots of the current conflict lie with competition over land between Arab herders and farmers from three African tribes - the Fur, the Masaalit, and Zaghawa. Early last year, two rebel groups from the African tribes, who, like the Arabs, are Muslim, attacked an army base to protest the government's failure to protect them from Janjaweed raids as well as their marginalization in the region's development. Khartoum responded with a ferocious counter-insurgency campaign that included supplying the Janjaweed with heavier weapons, carrying out joint missions with the militias and bombing African towns and villages.
Just last week, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios presented Annan and the five permanent members of the Security Council with satellite photographs of nearly 600 villages in the region, 300 of which had "been completely destroyed," and 76 "severely damaged." "The rest are fine, and they are all Arab," he said. "It's clear that ethnic cleansing is going on here."
So far, both Washington and the UN have used "ethnic cleansing" to describe the situation, although U.S. war crimes ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper last week said there were "indicators of genocide," and Powell himself reported two weeks ago that State Department lawyers were discussing whether "genocide" was an appropriate way to describe what is happening.
The use of the word has decisive consequences, as noted by Africa Action's Booker. All permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the U.S., are parties to the 1948 Convention on Genocide and are thus bound to prevent and punish the crime, unilaterally if necessary. Genocide is defined as the commission of acts with "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."
With 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in nearby Djibouti, according to Booker, the U.S. could play the leading role in spearheading a multinational effort to secure the region and open the way to the kind of massive relief operation that experts increasingly believe is essential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.
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