hile the focus of the United States is firmly fixed on the war in Iraq, southern Sudan's oil fields have again become the scene of ethnic cleansing. In an effort to focus on Iraq and not inflame the Muslim world America is ignoring this resurgent aggression in Sudan. This policy can only undermine her wider fight against terrorism.
On New Year's Eve, two days after Sudan's President Gen. Omer Bashir publicly threatened to resume his regime's military jihad in southern Sudan, government troops moved out of their garrisons in the Lundin and Talisman oil-concession areas. Since then, the area has been home to massive displacement, murder, enslavement, and destruction of property, including U.N.-related aid facilities. The aggression comes despite a U.S.-brokered ceasefire between the government of Sudan and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
Such acts of "genocide" to borrow the language used by both President Bush and Congress in the "Sudan Peace Act" have become commonplace. In Khartoum's 20-year-old war to subjugate southern Sudan, two million black non-Muslims have already perished, and four-and-a-half million have been displaced. Tens of thousands perhaps more remain enslaved.
Last year, hopes were high that Khartoum's declared jihad might soon come to an end. Bush's bold peace initiative produced significant results. Both parties agreed to a sound framework for a political settlement, including a southern Sudanese referendum on independence, confederal interim arrangements, and the exemption of southern Sudan from Islamic law. They also agreed to honor a comprehensive ceasefire, at least until the end of March. But as the United States prepares for war in Iraq, Gen. Bashir plucked up the courage to test America's resolve to defend the ceasefire it brokered.
This is what Khartoum discovered. The United States joined Europe in turning a blind eye to its aggression and the consequent humanitarian catastrophe. Day after day, Khartoum was able to violate the ceasefire and commit war crimes with impunity. Moreover, it did so while the president's Special Envoy for Peace in Sudan, former Senator John Danforth, was having talks in Khartoum with Gen. Bashir.
"C" Street maintained an eerie public silence, reminiscent of its obscurantism in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's gassing of Iraqi Kurds in 1988. Washington's fear is that a public reprimand, however mild, will prompt Khartoum to scupper the peace process. Officials are also wary of Khartoum's ability to complicate America's fragile relations with the Islamic world at a time of war against terrorism and Saddam Hussein. Khartoum has been quick to learn from America's blind-eye policy.
For three weeks, the State Department sat on reports of the offensive and the extensive human suffering it had caused. Only after Christian Solidarity International alerted the media did spokesman Richard Boucher finally acknowledge the ceasefire violations and identify the Sudanese government as the aggressor in a low-key statement, dated January 23. The American government did little more than to issue a toothless warning, advising both parties to desist from further violations. The only declared consequence would be to "rob the current peace effort of good will and trust." As for the homeless and hungry victims, their plight was passed over in silence.
Expert at taking a mile when given an inch, the Islamist regime in Khartoum quickly protested against the State Department's mild verbal "intervention," claiming that the U.S. had sacrificed its neutral role in the peace process. A jittery State Department responded by backtracking from its original findings. And on January 27, a new statement was issued by State, casting doubt on the veracity of its earlier claim that Khartoum had violated the ceasefire. The new American position became: "If these reports [of war crimes and ceasefire violations] are true, Khartoum risks losing its credibility as a serious partner for peace with both the United States and the international community."
Of course, the reports were true. Even as U.S. mediators in Nairobi were scolding Khartoum behind closed doors, Bashir again unleashed Arab slave raiders to wreak further havoc in western Upper Nile. His government was even so bold as to announce to the press, on February 2, that its armed forced had captured the southern town of Akobo from the SPLA. Khartoum's ceasefire violations and attacks on civilians which included the enslavement and sexual abuse of women and children received further confirmation in a report issued on February 6 by Gen. Herbert Lloyd and his new international team of "Civilian Protection Monitors." Yet, State apparently still regards Khartoum's Islamist war criminals as credible partners for peace.
The fact is that Bashir has never been a serious partner for peace. Nor is he likely to become one. Like fellow war criminals Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, Bashir is driven by a bigoted, aggressive ideology. In Sudan's case, it is the Islamist's ideology of jihad. In his moving speech to Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush identified this ideology as heir "of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century". It is this religio-political mindset that prompted Bashir to shelter Osama bin Ladin and al Qaeda in Sudan in the 1990s and earned Sudan its place on the State Department's list of terrorist sponsors. Bashir is also a master at playing Saddam-like games of deception with the international community.
The murder, enslavement, and displacement of black Sudanese Christians and tribal traditionalists seems not to have made clear to the White House the true nature of Bashir's regime. Not even the government-sponsored pro-Saddam rallies in Khartoum which have included the burning of President Bush's effigy, wrapped in American and Israeli flags have moved American policymakers off the appeasement track. Indeed, according to a still-unconfirmed AP report, the U.S. is now training Gen. Bashir's troops in the arts of counterterrorism in Djibouti, in the context of a program called "Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa."
If the Sudanese government is ever to fundamentally change its ways, it will only do so as a result of American firmness and pressure. It was the vigor of U.S. military intervention in the post-9/11 era combined with the threat, contained in the Sudan Peace Act of October 2001, of millions of dollars of aid going to the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) that put Khartoum, for a time, on the defensive. But Gen. Bashir has now been emboldened by the impotent American response to his most recent acts of aggression.
The latest messages sent wittingly or unwittingly by Washington to Khartoum are clear: The United States will stand by and observe your "acts of genocide". Moreover we will help you manage the media so that Congress and the public will not become alarmed about the atrocities you commit. You may safely continue your war, provided you do not interfere with ours against al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and help maintain the illusion of imminent peace with justice by remaining at the negotiating table. Whatever peace agreement you sign, you may also break.
An equally clear message has also been sent to the SPLA: Beware! You are the weaker of the two belligerents, and are manifestly unable to protect the civilian population in the strategically important oil fields. The United States will do nothing to help you. The Civilian Protection Monitoring Team will protect no one. You would be well-advised to make peace quickly on the best terms available.
If Washington is, indeed, training the Sudanese military, it sends signals still more dangerous to American security interests: Even though you are a terrorist state animated, like al Qaeda, by the ideology of jihad, the U.S. now regards you as a partner in the war against terrorism.
Such messages in whatever language they are phrased encourage the aggressor to further acts of violence, and will tempt him to ignore all the peace agreements. Whatever its motives, the State Department's manner of handling the Bashir regime is harmful to the victims of violent jihad in Sudan and is damaging to America's long-term security interests in a volatile region.
Satisfied with recent ceasefire military gains in the strategically important oil fields, Bashir is, for the moment, winding down the offensive. He knows how far he can push without risking a strong American reaction. On February 4, the U.S. persuaded the belligerents to sign a new agreement without guarantees to "strengthen" the shattered ceasefire. Its most ominous condition is the "requirement to freeze media wars." The SPLA has been forced to undertake not to expose further acts of "genocide" in the press, but to submit tamely reports of ceasefire violations to the same mediators who signally failed to protect hundreds of thousands of jihad victims in the oil fields. Government ceasefire violations continued throughout the rest of February, but on a smaller scale.
President Bush should not abandon his peace initiative on account of Khartoum's open display of bad faith. But it is imperative that the United States maintain maximum diplomatic pressure on Bashir to force him toward a lasting, fair peace, with durable international guarantees. As the forces of the Islamist ideology worldwide take America's measure, appeasement anywhere can only signal weakness everywhere.
Maximum pressure means publicly and promptly identifying ceasefire violations, and bringing them to the attention of the U.N. Security Council. It means taking steps for the establishment of an International War Crimes Tribunal for Sudan. It means being prepared to report to Congress that the government of Sudan is not negotiating in good faith, and triggering, if necessary, the punitive measures called for in the Sudan Peace Act. It may mean establishing a no-fly zone over an autonomous southern Sudan, on the model of northern Iraq.
There is no guarantee that any amount of firm persuasion will transform Gen. Bashir from a terrorist into a respecter of human rights, especially those of the black kuffaar (infidels) of southern Sudan. The odds are stacked heavily against it. Peace agreements based on the goodwill of the likes of Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and Gen. Bashir are bound to fail at the end of the day. The Bush administration would therefore do well to look for alternatives to Khartoum's radical Islamists.
There are powerful elements within the northern Sudanese opposition that are committed to reaching a political settlement on terms acceptable to southern Sudan, including the right to self-determination. These offer the best prospect of genuine partnership in the search for peace and security. Time is running out. The United States will rue the day it imposes a paper peace agreement on Sudan with a terrorist, genocidal regime as its cornerstone.
John Eibner is director of human rights, Christian Solidarity International (CSI).