The last time a US secretary of State visited Sudan was 1978, when Jimmy Carter's envoy, Cyrus Vance, stopped to refuel his plane.
But in a sign of Sudan's growing significance, Colin Powell arrived Tuesday for a high-profile two-day visit. The trip is the latest evidence of a major shift in US policy toward the Muslim-led state that once harbored Osama bin Laden.
The visit is primarily aimed at halting the suffering and violence in Sudan's western region of Darfur, home to the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
But analysts say it may also fulfill other White House goals. If the Bush team can bring Sudan back into the family of nations, as it did this week with Libya, it would gain a diplomatic victory for the war on terror. It could also fire up its Christian-conservative base by securing a peace deal in Sudan's other war, a 21-year conflict between the Muslims in the north and the largely Christian south. And it could keep critics from having another issue with which to pillory its foreign policy if it can prevent a repeat of Rwanda's 1994 genocide in Sudan.
"People are starting to use the term genocide" in connection with Darfur, says Jennifer Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "That accusation, especially in an election year, and particularly after this administration has put so much effort" into a north-south peace agreement, "is not something they want to deal with." Furthermore, she says, if they can strengthen ties with Sudan's government, "they could make the case that, 'Our strong confrontation against terror has been productive not only in Iraq, but we've also brought some rogue states back into the fold.' "
The US motives for engaging in the Darfur crisis may not be entirely altruistic, observers say, but the Bush team's passion about Sudan also helps ensure that serious relief may actually arrive for Darfur's at-risk masses.
In comments just ahead of the trip, Andrew Natsios, head of the US Agency for International Development, who was traveling with Mr. Powell, said up to 1 million Sudanese refugees could die this year due to government-supported ethnic cleansing.
In a measure of the administration's commitment on the issue, Mr. Natsios took the unusual step last week of using satellite images to highlight the destruction of some 300 villages by Arab Janjaweed militias, which are apparently backed by Sudan's government. The Janjaweed have been killing, raping, and robbing mainly black villagers, who are ethnically - and perhaps politically - connected to two rebel groups that began an antigovernment struggle in 2003.
Another US official, war-crimes ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, also said recently that the US had found "indicators of genocide" in the region, which is about the size of Texas. The United Nations says that 30,000 people have died so far and 1 million have been displaced.
Prodded by the Bush team, Sudan's government and southern Christian rebels have been inching toward a comprehensive peace deal for about two years. The war broke out in 1983 after the south took up arms against Khartoum. Insurgents are looking for more equitable treatment of southerners and a share of the country's oil wealth. Negotiators are currently meeting in Kenya to work out details on peacekeeping and demobilization of troops. Another round of talks is set for later this year.
Such a deal would end Africa's longest-running civil war. It would also be a trophy the White House could hand to its Christian-conservative base, which became outraged over northern Arabs kidnapping and enslaving southern Christians during the war. And it would enable the US to proceed with lifting sanctions against Sudan and restoring formal diplomatic ties, which the US did on Monday with Libya, another Muslim country with past ties to terrorism.
At one point in January, a north-south deal was so close that Sudanese leaders from both sides began applying for visas to go to the White House for a signing ceremony. But recently, southern rebels have said they won't join with Sudan's government if it's involved in genocide in Darfur.
Human rights and other liberal-leaning groups have begun exerting pressure on the US to deal with growing abuses in Darfur. Amid 10th-anniversary commemorations of the Rwanda genocide in April, the chorus became stronger.
Politically, the Darfur issue is "easy for Bush, since he wins from the left and the right," says Robert Rotberg, an Africa scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
But finding a real solution may be harder. Despite growing desire in the administration and Congress for action on Darfur, there's little willingness to put US boots on the ground to stop the killing or keep the peace. Republican Senators like Mike DeWine of Ohio and John McCain of Arizona have advocated paying for other nations' troops - perhaps via a UN peacekeeping mission. But there's reluctance in the UN Security Council - reportedly among nations like China, Pakistan, and Algeria - to get too involved in Darfur.
UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan is also in Sudan this week to assess the situation. He's expected to meet up with Powell.
Also, there appears to be deep Sudanese suspicion about Powell's visit - a fear that's tied to US actions in Iraq. "The fear is that there is a premeditated plan to destabilize Sudan," says Abdul-Rahim Ali Mohamed Ibrahim, head of the Khartoum International Institute of Arabic Language. "We don't see what's happening in Iraq as all that different from what's happening in Sudan."
But the pressure does appear to be having some effect. Sudan's president recently ordered his military to disarm the Janjaweed militias, although it's not clear the order has been followed.
• Material from the wire services was used in this report.