Day for peace in a splintered Sudan

Sunday's agreement may end the north-south civil war, but the humanitarian crisis continues in Sudan's Darfur region.

In a sun-dappled stadium here full of some 30,000 people, a peace deal was inked Sunday that may end Africa's longest civil war.

The conflict has raged in Sudan since 1983. But now the killing - which has taken 2 million lives - may finally cease. Four million displaced people can go home. And there's new hope that even the world's most-intractable conflicts - including those between Muslims and Christians, as this one was - can be halted.

Yet amid the euphoria, with tribal dancers stomping, women ululating, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell congratulating the parties, the issue on many minds was the separate and growing conflict in Darfur, the western region in Sudan where the US says genocide has occurred.

The great hope is that this deal will build momentum toward peace in Darfur. But some analysts warn it could have the op- posite effect: Ending one of the country's two wars could dissipate American and Western outrage about Sudan and sap the desire to halt Darfur's atrocities.

The new resolution is "historic and the best thing to happen to Sudan in years," says Tom Crick, a conflict-resolution analyst at the Carter Center in Atlanta. But "a lot more compromise will be needed" to bring peace to all of Sudan, he says.

On paper, the deal addresses nearly all the grievances that led southerners to take up arms two decades ago - things like the northern government refusing to pay for new roads and schools in the south, even as it tried to impose sharia (Islamic law) on the region, which is animist and Christian. But actually carrying out the agreement's details, observers say, will be difficult and require further negotiation.

Still, the world's perception of Sudan's government changes dramatically and immediately with this peace settlement, says Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. For many, "It's no longer an evil regime but is now a partner."

A moment of irony Sunday makes the point. It came when Mr. Powell stepped to the podium and hailed Sudan's president, Omar el-Bashir, as a "statesman," and one of the "partners for peace." For months, however, Powell has implied that Bashir's government has abetted genocide.

The atrocities in Darfur began in 2003, when the government responded to a rebellion by apparently arming Arab Janjaweed militias, who attacked, killed, and raped civilians. Some 70,000 have died and 2.3 million have been displaced.

To be sure, Powell also said the US expects Sudan's government to commence "rapid negotiation to resolve the crisis in Darfur" - "not next month ... but right away, starting today."

But some worry that Sudan's government is actually just trying to buy time by signing the deal. After six months of intense international pressure over Darfur, Sudan "needs this deal to get the international community off its back," says David Mozersky of the International Crisis Group here.

And skeptics doubt the government of Sudan, the continent's largest country, will ever implement the deal - saying it has a history of promising much and delivering little.

"Either they've had the most incredible conversion experience since St. Paul or they're not serious about this," says John Ashworth, who follows the issue for Christian groups in South Africa.

The implementation period for this deal stretches out over several years. During that time, the US, Europe, and others may lose interest in Sudan and, eventually, Darfur, Mr. Ashworth says. "Stopping a war is quite sexy, but being in it for the long haul is not nearly as interesting."

Others say the settlement offers hope for Darfur. It suggests, for instance, that Sudan's government will bend to international pressure.

Indeed, the government made big compromises in the deal. It agreed to a referendum in six years on whether oil-wealthy southern Sudan should be allowed to secede from the north - or remain united. It agreed to a 50-50 sharing of oil revenues with southerners. It agreed to bring rebels into its government. And it agreed to confine sharia to northern areas, a major concession for the Islamist rulers.

The peace deal will also trigger deployment of up to 10,000 UN peacekeepers within about a year. This could pave the way for turning the current force of African Union peacekeepers in Darfur into a UN operation. "Inexorably, people will move toward saying, 'Let's blue- helmet that force and give it the boost it needs' " to deal with Darfur's violence, says Dr. Morrison, referring to the UN.

The agreement may also shift the world's focus onto other causes of the Darfur conflict, including outside forces supporting Darfur rebels. These apparently include neighboring Chad and Eritrea.

For now, though, it's time to revel in the promise of peace, says James Mariak, an 18-year-old from southern Sudan who has known only war in his lifetime. He moved to Kenya two years ago, but with the peace deal signed, he plans to build a house and plant sorghum back in Sudan. "There is nothing like today," he says, as traditional dancers stomp and sing around him. "There's nothing like peace."

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