EL FASHER, Sudan - A joint African-United Nations force took over peacekeeping duties in Darfur yesterday, a long-awaited change that is intended to be the strongest effort yet to solve the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
But many are already warning that its prospects are grim, and that if it fails it will only worsen the 4 1/2-year conflict, which has already killed more than 200,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes.
The force - at 9,000 soldiers and police officers - is only a little larger than the beleaguered and ineffectual African Union peacekeeping mission it replaces. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take months to build up to its planned strength of 26,000.
Western nations have not come through with equipment such as military helicopters and vehicles the UN says are vital for the new force to reach hot spots quickly and protect civilians. The Sudanese government, meanwhile, has thrown up numerous obstacles to the deployment.
Adding to the pressure on Sudan's government, President Bush signed legislation yesterday to allow states and local governments to cut investment ties with Sudan because of the violence in Darfur. The bill permits state, county, and municipal officials to adopt measures to divest their government investments from companies involved in the four sectors that provide vital revenue for Sudan's government - oil, power production, mining and military equipment.
The handover ceremony at the new mission's still unfinished headquarters outside El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, was low-key.
The African Union force's military commander, General Martin Agwai, took off his green African Union beret and donned one with the blue UN colors, becoming the commander of the new force, known as the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur, or UNAMID. The troops on hand for the ceremony did the same.
"We are determined to deploy the most robust force possible," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement read by UNAMID's top chief Rodolphe Adada. "If we are to have a real impact on the situation on the ground within the first half of 2008, these deployments must happen far more swiftly than they have done so far."
Ban chided nations for not pledging aircraft and ground transport. The Darfur conflict has pitted ethnic African rebels against the military of the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. Arab militias allied to the government, known as janjaweed, are accused of a campaign of atrocities against ethnic African civilians.
The fighting has only grown more complicated over the past year, with rebel groups splintering. Since a deadly rebel attack on an AU base in November, the under-equipped AU troops have largely stayed in their camps, all but giving up on most basic peacekeeping missions, such as protecting women from being raped by janjaweed when they trek out to collect firewood.
Attacks on international aid workers increased 150 percent over 2007, and violence has made large areas inaccessible to humanitarian relief, according to the UN. The UN and Western nations hope that deploying a strongly equipped UNAMID force could put some firepower behind attempts to protect civilians.