KHARTOUM, Sudan — After years of resisting United Nations intervention in the troubled Darfur region, the government of Sudan has suddenly adopted a more conciliatory stance under increased pressure from the United States and China.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who once said he'd allow U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur "only over my dead body," agreed June 12 to allow a U.N.-led force of 20,000 peacekeepers into the war-torn region, where as many as 400,000 people have died and some 2.5 million more have been forced from their homes.
The move came two weeks after the Bush administration imposed new sanctions on Sudanese companies, and as other nations, including Great Britain, reportedly are mulling similar action.
"The government bowed to pressure," said Sadiq al-Mahdi, a Sudanese opposition leader and former prime minister.
Some diplomats in the Sudanese capital credit China, a leading investor in Sudan's growing oil industry, with quietly urging its ally to accept the U.N. force, aimed at stabilizing what aid workers call the world's gravest humanitarian crisis. China is under fire from human-rights activists who are calling for a boycott of next year's Summer Olympics in Beijing because of the government's support of Sudan.
"They (China) are on board with the agreement" on the U.N. force, said a Western diplomat in Khartoum, who asked not to be identified because the diplomat wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "I think they have applied pressure."
Sudanese officials said they'd reached the agreement after negotiating the size and makeup of the "hybrid" force with the U.N. and the African Union, which has about 5,500 peacekeepers of its own in Darfur, a harsh land the size of Texas.
Western officials here, some of whom acknowledge that they were caught off-guard by Sudan's about-face, said it would take at least 12 months, possibly much longer, to deploy the full contingent of U.N. troops.
There are a host of obstacles. African soldiers are to form the bulk of the force, but it's not clear which countries will contribute troops. Building housing and trucking in huge quantities of food and water are enormous logistical challenges in Darfur, which has few roads or other infrastructure.
Increasingly, however, Sudanese officials say they're eager to cooperate with the U.N. They say the real cause of instability in Darfur is an array of rebel groups that rejected a peace agreement last year and now are targeting aid workers and peacekeepers. Only one rebel faction signed the agreement, which has little support in Darfur.
After meetings with U.N. Security Council members in Khartoum over the weekend, Foreign Minister Lam Akol said it was now up to the U.N. to deploy the peacekeeping mission "as soon as possible."
"The president ... has made it clear that the ball is now in the court of the United Nations," Akol said.
Western officials who've spent months trying to get Sudan to agree to the force no longer can accuse the government of stonewalling, the Western diplomat said.
"We could always blame them for something," the diplomat said. "Now we have to show something. Getting the U.N. on the ground is a real challenge."
Many noted that Sudan has reneged on past agreements to allow U.N. personnel access to Darfur.
"My sense is the government will continue to impede the force, slow it down," the diplomat said. "It's not their intention to have a big U.N. force in the country."
Khartoum has faced worldwide condemnation over the atrocities in Darfur, an arid western region in which government-sponsored Arab militias have systematically torched villages and attacked civilians. The Bush administration has characterized the campaign as genocide, although no other government has done so.
Privately, Sudanese officials said they were tired of being labeled an international pariah because of Darfur. The image they'd rather project to the world is that of a nation on the rise thanks to double-digit economic growth and a booming oil sector fueled by investment from nations such as China and Malaysia.
Although much of the country remains desperately poor, government officials and business leaders liken Khartoum to a burgeoning Dubai-by-the-desert, with shimmering new hotels, BMW and Mercedes dealerships, and concrete-and-glass office parks rising on the city's outskirts.
The expansion has come despite U.S. sanctions that stem from the 1990s, when Osama bin Laden lived here and Sudan was labeled a state sponsor of terrorism. But there are signs that the relationship with Washington is thawing. The State Department has praised Sudan for "concrete cooperation" in counterterrorism.
Sudanese officials said they were dismayed by the new U.S. sanctions, which are intended to squeeze key industries such as sugar and telecommunications by outlawing major public and private firms from doing business with American banks.
Rabbie Abdel Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman, said Sudan is ready to improve relations with the United States.
"I think we should work very hard ... to make the relationship with the United States normal," the spokesman said. "The outcome will reflect on the life of the people. And it will improve the relationship between Sudan and other countries."
The United States is in a "wait and see" mode, according to a U.S. official here who wasn't authorized to speak for attribution.
Emyr Jones Parry, the British ambassador to the U.N., said this weekend that Sudan also might have been swayed by reports that British officials were considering similar measures.
"I would say that the suggestion of sanctions can themselves be just as effective as sanctions actually in place," Jones Parry said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007