US-Sudanese relations remain on track. Coup may have upstaged Libyan subversion, buying time for reform

US officials express cautious hopes that, under more stable leadership, Sudan might be a better anchor for American strategic interests in the Middle East and North Africa. Relations with Khartoum were briefly called into question over the weekend as United States officials scrambled to piece together details of Saturday's coup, which ended President Jaafar Nimeiry's controversial 16-year rule.

But in meetings in Khartoum on Sunday, US and Sudanese representatives traded diplomatic reassurances. Sudan pledged ``the maintenance of continued good relations.'' And administration officials say the $67 million in aid promised last week to then-President Nimeiry will be released to the new government, headed by Gen. Abdul-Rahman Swareddahab.

Although a staunch US ally, Nimeiry's maverick style and erratic political behavior have been the source of increasing concern to US officials.

In recent years, Nimeiry's domestic political base has eroded, a process hastened by a 1983 decision to impose strict Islamic rule on south Sudan's largely animist and Christian population. The result has been repeated coup attempts that have caused jitters here in Washington.

Sources here say last weekend's coup occurred after civilian and military leaders concluded that opposition to Nimeiry's rule was so broad that a change of leadership was the only way to preempt further Libyan intervention in Sudanese affairs. Libya is now the principal arms supplier to antigovernment guerrillas in southern Sudan.

Thus, observers here point out that the coup was essentially preemptive and not necessarily the harbinger of a reorientation of Sudanese policy toward Libya. They say that strong political and economic ties should help ensure continued close ties between the US and Sudan.

``The Sudanese know where the money comes from,'' says one State Department official. Receiving close to $200 million annually, Sudan is the second largest US aid recipient in Africa, after Egypt.

Administration officials express hope that by at least temporarily dissipating the mounting domestic dissatisfaction with Nimeiry, the leaders of Sudan's new government may buy the time necessary to institute promised political reforms and get Sudan's economic house in order.

But many here express concern over the ability of anyone to master Sudan's staggering problems, including a nearly bankrupt national treasury, a refuge population of more than 1 million, widespread drought and the presence of two fractious neighbors, Ethiopia and Libya.

Experts here also note that the coup offers a classic example of the difficult trade-off between the US's desire for political stability among key third-world allies and the painful economic reforms required both by the US and the International Monetary Fund, the principal source of cheap loans to poor countries. The US has granted generous amounts of concessional aid to Sudan. But the asking price has been an austerity program that has led to higher food prices. This, in turn, helped undermine the Nimeiry government.

``So far,'' says Richard Feinberg, of the Overseas Development Council, ``the Reagan administration has been lucky. Given the prevelance of economic stress and unrest in the third world, the amount of political stability has been remarkable.''

In Sudan's case, he says, ``the patient died from the cure. Nimeiry could be a harbinger of things to come in other countries.'' -- 30 --{et

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