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The Monitor's View

After Sudan vote on partition, Obama cannot rest

The US helped quell the deadly conflict in Africa's largest country. After the Jan. 9 referendum on sucession in south Sudan, President Obama can't afford to let fighting resume.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / January 3, 2011



Every US president since Ronald Reagan has sent the military into a new trouble spot somewhere in the world – except Barack Obama. And now he is trying hard to keep that record of no new intervention in the case of Sudan. This year, Africa’s largest country may be split into two.

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A referendum is set for Jan. 9 in southern Sudan that will probably result in a partition between the largely Arab, Islamic north and the largely black, Christian, and animist south. If this national divorce goes as planned, it could finally put an end to a conflict that resulted in the loss of more than 2 million lives.

The task of peacefully breaking up Sudan, however, remains far from finished and is a test of Mr. Obama’s attempt to avoid more military deployments. His secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, only recently called Sudan “a ticking time bomb.” And his former director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, stated last year that of all the world’s trouble spots, “a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan” within five years.

It is a mark of US diplomacy – that began with a 2005 agreement between the north and south – that the regime of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir in Khartoum now appears willing to let the referendum take place without stirring up militias in the south. Mr. Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party even appear resigned to the south overwhelmingly voting for secession, as is widely expected.

Both sides have strong incentives to make this split-up work. Each government is highly dependent on money from Sudan’s oil exports. And each has enough foes within their own camps not to again fight each other.

Still, a strong American hand is needed through 2011 to ensure that the north and south negotiate a postreferendum deal on border demarcation, oil sharing, foreign debt, the status of southern refugees, and the future of the oil-rich Abyei territory. (The latter is home to both a tribe of farmers supported by the south and a northern-backed Arab nomadic tribe.)

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