Oil could turn tables in Sudan war

Clinton is set to OK aid to South's rebels, offsetting northern pipeline profits.

Sudan's ability to extract 150,000 barrels of oil a day might persuade the Clinton administration to provide food aid to rebels in the South.

Sudan's new oil wealth, first unearthed at the end of August, could shift the balance of Africa's longest, and most violent civil conflict. Jemera Rone, a Sudan expert with Human Rights Watch, says the scales might tip in favor of the Islamic government in Khartoum.

"Oil revenues will allow the government to buy more arms, more planes with which to bomb rebel positions in the South," says Ms. Rone.

A victory by the Islamic North over the Sudanese People's Liberation Army rebels would likely turn the already Islamic state into one with an more fundamentalist bent. Human rights activists say it would also leave the United States in the uncomfortable position of having done little to stop the cruel war.

"If the North wins, they will not have won an ordinary war," says Eric Reeves of Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Professor Reeves, who has written extensively on the conflict in Sudan, explains, "They will have won a genocidal war, a war defined by the bombing of clearly marked civilian hospitals ... by the use of famine as a weapon."

Susan Rice, who drives US policy toward Africa for the State Department, advocates food aid. She asserts that the need to contain Khartoum's fundamentalism should override the usual neutrality of humanitarian assistance.

Perhaps the worst accusation against Sudanese authorities is that of deliberately starving over a million Dinka tribesmen - the backbone of the SPLA - in the great famine of 1989, and again 10 years later. As many as a quarter million Dinka are estimated to have lost their lives in the spring of 1998.

But a number of US politicians oppose the idea of favoring a combatant in an armed conflict. Julia Tafts, assistant secretary of state for refugees and humanitarian assistance, is one of them. She argues that violating the principle of neutrality of food aid would set a morally dubious precedent.

Her colleague at the State Department Thomas Pickering also favors moderation in Sudan. He tried unsuccessfully to reopen an embassy there.

Reconciliation efforts were further hampered when Osama bin Laden, the Saudi extremist charged with attacking US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was harbored by Sudanese officials before his return to Afghanistan.

According to an administration official, the main proponents of food aid are in Congress. "Let's not confuse congressional sentiment with administration policy," the official said. "We would object to being required to provide this assistance" if Clinton signs the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill authorizing food aid to Sudan, as expected on Monday. Both the Senate Foreign Relations and African Affairs committees want Washington to reverse its relatively moderate policy toward Sudan.

The Senate narrowed its focus on Sudan over the summer as soon as oil started flowing there through a 1,000- mile pipeline joining the southern state of Unity to Port Sudan in the North. The pipeline, capable of transporting upwards of 450,000 barrels of oil a day, was completed in late August by a consortium of Canada's Talisman Energy, Malaysia's Petronas, Sudan's state company (Sudapet), and the China National Petroleum Corp.

"The pipeline has strengthened the hand of those wanting to assist the SPLA, says Sudan expert Rone.

According to Prof. Reeves, oil has long been crucial to the maintenance of Khartoum's war machine. "What everyone in the administration knows is that Sudan has been waging a $1-million-a-day war," he says, "on anticipated, and now real, oil revenue."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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