WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama announced a shift in strategy toward Sudan on Monday, saying he'll offer incentives to the government if it will end a humanitarian crisis in its Darfur region.
His willingness to work with the government of President Omar al Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court has charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, signaled a break from the hard-line approach that the Bush administration and some of Obama's own advisers favored.
Obama still held out the possibility of renewing sanctions against Sudan that have been in place since 1997, saying he'd sign that order later this week if he thought that it was necessary. First, however, he signaled, he wants to try adding a carrot to the stick.
"Sudan is now poised to fall further into chaos if swift action is not taken," the president said in a written statement.
"Our conscience and our interests in peace and security call upon the United States and the international community to act with a sense of urgency and purpose."
He said two immediate steps must be taken to avoid further punishment:
-- A "definitive" end to the conflict, human rights abuses and genocide in the Darfur region, which have killed hundreds of thousands.
-- Implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south in Sudan.
"If the government of Sudan acts to improve the situation on the ground and to advance peace, there will be incentives," Obama said. "If it does not, then there will be increased pressure imposed by the United States and the international community."
Human rights activists welcomed a new approach, but they questioned whether the president would follow through enough to be effective.
"The administration's diplomatic efforts to date have led member organizations to question whether the policy, as articulated today, will be fully implemented in the days ahead," said the Sudan Now campaign, a coalition of human rights and anti-genocide groups.
Sudan experts said the new policy was a compromise between a more aggressive stance against Khartoum -- favored by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations -- and the more conciliatory approach voiced by Scott Gration, Obama's special envoy to Sudan.
Gration has angered domestic activist groups by advocating broader engagement with Khartoum, saying recently that countries, like schoolchildren, deserved "gold stars" for good behavior.
Andrew Natsios, who served as President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan in 2006-07, said the resulting policy was filled with "vague generalities" that wouldn't sway the government, which is flush with oil revenue and has built robust economic ties with China.
"The Obama administration statements continue to use inflammatory rhetoric on genocide which panders to domestic advocacy groups which have been misleading the American public for some time now on the situation in Darfur," Natsios said.
He, like Gration, came under fire for arguing that genocide wasn't currently taking place in Darfur.
Sudanese officials said they were "ready to talk," but they didn't seem impressed by the carrots Obama extended.
"We think that Sudan is still on the blacklist," said Rabie Abdel Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman. "They say that there is still a genocide in Darfur, whereas this goes against the reports of General Gration himself."
Analysts praised the policy for highlighting the dispute between Bashir's northern-based government and impoverished southern Sudan, which fought a two-decade civil war until 2005. As the world has focused on the crisis in western Darfur, the north-south truce has unraveled, and regional analysts say that both sides are rearming ahead of 2011, when southern Sudan, which has most of the country's oil fields, is expected to vote on seceding in a referendum.
Southern Sudanese officials greeted the new policy warily.
"If the new approach includes pressure on the NCP" -- Bashir's National Congress Party -- "we will welcome it," said John Andruga Duku, the head of the southern Sudan political office in neighboring Kenya. "But if it continues the way Gration has been, it will be a disaster for Sudan."
(Bengali reported from Nairobi, Kenya.)
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