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US holds key to peace in Sudan

SUDAN'S Islamist government and the secular Sudan People's Liberation Army have passed another milestone in a long and tortuous peace process. On Wednesday, Vice President Ali Osman Taha and SPLA Chairman Colonel John Garang signed the last of six protocols that collectively constitute a framework for a comprehensive peace agreement for Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. They are now poised to conclude negotiations by establishing modalities for implementation and international monitoring.

On paper, the protocols appear to lay the foundation for an end to 21 years of apocalyptic civil war between successive Arab-Muslim-dominated governments and the predominantly black, non-Muslim rebels of Southern Sudan. The South is due to receive autonomous, Shariah-free government during a six-year interim period. Free elections are scheduled within three years. Southern Sudan is promised a referendum on independence at the end of that period.

The greatest beneficiary of peace should be the South. There, the war assumed genocidal proportions: Over two million black non-Muslims perished, over four million were displaced, and tens of thousands enslaved. For Southern Sudan, the protocols open a door to economic development and self-determination. They also provide the North with a historic opportunity to free itself from a destructive jihad declared against restive non-Muslim communities.

The Bush administration deserves credit for creating conditions for a serious peace process. Despite a parade of initiatives over the years, no significant progress had been made until 2001 when President Bush appointed former Senator John Danforth as special envoy. Congress also played a crucial role. With broad bipartisan support, it passed the Sudan Peace Act in 2002. This legislation identified Sudan's government as the perpetrator of acts of "genocide" and gave the president the carrots and sticks he needed to ensure progress.

The key question now is whether the six protocols will lead to stability, or become, like the Oslo Accords, a byword for failed diplomacy. The biggest obstacle to success is the belief of Northern Sudan's ruling class in its manifest destiny to Islamize and Arabize the multicultural country. Cultural and religious assimilation in Sudan is the legacy of 1,300 years of Arab colonialism and has been pursued by successive governments since independence in 1956. General Bashir's dictatorship promotes Islamization and Arabization in the context of a totalitarian ideology of jihad. Fundamental ideological change in Khartoum is a precondition of sustainable peace.

Khartoum's war against Muslim black African tribes in Darfur demonstrates its lack of commitment to peace. Since the end of last year, government offensives have displaced over one million civilians, and have resulted in the death of tens of thousands. Captive women and children are subjected to ritual gang-rape. UN officials now use terms such as "war crimes," "crimes against humanity," "reign of terror," and "ethnic cleansing" to describe the deeds of Bashir's troops.

The continuing enslavement of tens of thousands of black non-Muslims and Khartoum's persistent denial of this "crime against humanity" is further indication that institutionalized racism and religious bigotry have not been overcome. In December 2002, Danforth identified the eradication of slavery as vital. Yet Khartoum has made little progress in facilitating the liberation of slaves -- despite having received millions of US dollars from the international community for that purpose.

In the South, the greatest long-term danger to peace comes from the possibility of nonaccountable government, a breakdown of the fragile institutional and economic infrastructure, and a descent into tribalism. Khartoum expects this and is prepared to exploit the poverty of the South, using its immense power of patronage over key Southern politicians and tribal militias -- to undermine the peace process, especially future implementation of the right of self-determination.

If these enormous obstacles to a lasting peace are overcome, it will be because of continuing US engagement. The Bush administration must compel Khartoum to end all campaigns of terror. It should also advance representative and secular constitutional government, in accordance with Bush's declared commitment to encourage democracy. As long as Sudan's pro-democracy movement and substantial religious and ethnic minorities are marginalized, peace will be very fragile indeed.

President Bush should be prepared to employ throughout the interim period the punitive measures provided by the Sudan Peace Act to ensure that both sides honor their word. The eradication of slavery will require an effective monitoring mechanism at the State Department. Without a strong US commitment to guarantee the six protocols, a lasting peace in Sudan is likely to prove illusory.

John Eibner, a member of the human rights organization Christian Solidarity International, and Joe Madison, a Washington-based syndicated radio commentator, are co-founders of the Sudan Campaign coalition. 

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