For Peace in Sudan

The civil war in Sudan has raged for 20 years, killing 2 million people and displacing 4 million. Its original cause was the government's attempts to Arabize and Islamicize the people in the south and the Nuba Mountains - black Africans who are mostly Christians or followers of local religions.

The huge, beleaguered country is a stereotype of Africa's problems: underdevelopment, bad government, ethnic and religious strife, and a thriving slave trade. It's also important to the US as a past haven for terrorists.

The discovery of oil in the south several years ago has helped keep the war going. The government in Khartoum has forcibly evicted people from their lands to develop the oil fields.

While the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) are no angels when it comes to human rights, they aren't even in the same league as government forces. The Army and government-backed militias have bombed and attacked civilians, often from the air; allowed hundreds of thousands to starve while withholding food aid; and kidnapped thousands of women and children, whom they sell into slavery and sexual servitude.

Since its arrival in office, the Bush administration has increased humanitarian aid to the south and pressed both sides to negotiate. In 2002, the government and SPLA agreed to a cease-fire and a self-determination referendum in the south to follow a six-year transition period under a unity government. But they remain divided on such basic issues as secular institutions, division of oil revenues, security, and power-sharing. Meanwhile, Khartoum has repeatedly violated the cease-fire and built up its forces in southern garrison cities.

Peace talks resumed this month in Kenya and observers say negotiators have made fragile progress. But continued US pressure - especially on Khartoum - is needed to ensure success. It's encouraging to hear reports that Secretary of State Colin Powell called Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for that purpose last week.

Some in Washington worry that pushing too hard will threaten Sudan's opportunistic cooperation in the war on terrorism. Yet the US has ample leverage: Khartoum needs US sanctions lifted to get more foreign investment in its oil industry and to qualify for international loans.

The Sudan Peace Act of 2002 gives the president authority to slap further sanctions on Sudan if its government doesn't negotiate in good faith.

The White House should make clear it's ready to use that power if necessary.

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