Hope is still alive that the Sudanese government and rebels can reach a peace accord in the Darfur conflict by midnight Tuesday night, an extended deadline for agreement to end a conflict the US government calls genocide.
But even as negotiations continue, the humanitarian tragedy in the western region of Sudan threatens to deteriorate further.
Forces ranging from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the activists who marched in Washington over the weekend say it will take increased world pressure to bring about a peace accord and end the violence that has left an estimated 200,000 civilians dead and about 2 million uprooted and homeless.
But the United Nations' announcement that it will cut in half the daily rations of refugees due to lack of international aid suggests that prospects may be grim for increased support. True, the United States has been out ahead of other world powers in pressing the parties in the peace talks and approving billions of dollars in aid, but many activists and some experts believe the US has not put its full weight behind the Darfur struggle.
"Caring about Darfur and calling it genocide seems to be enough for some of the Darfur activists and elements of the administration," says John Prendergast, an Africa expert with the International Crisis Group in Washington, which studies and consults on security issues. "But I have to harshly disagree with the assertions that we've done all we can, because we haven't."
Mr. Prendergast, who worked on Africa security issues in the Clinton administration, says President Bush should have appointed a special envoy to "have someone committed full time" to arriving at a peace accord acceptable to both sides.
Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has taken on the Darfur portfolio. "That's great," Prendergast says, "but he has a lot of other issues on his plate. We need someone whose sole purpose is to pressure the parties and work with the neighboring countries and other actors in this so that they are also active in the effort."
One reason the US may not be pressing the government in Khartoum as hard as it might: recent improvement in Sudan's cooperation with US antiterror efforts. But with Osama bin Laden issuing pleas to Muslims to resist the establishment of any West-led peace force in Darfur, the stakes only grow for a stable and cooperative Sudan.
Despite such factors, the US is by far the largest donor to Darfur relief efforts. The World Food Program (WFP), the UN agency leading international humanitarian efforts in Darfur, says the US is providing it with $188 million for its 2006 Sudan emergency operations, well ahead of Libya at $4.5 million, the next largest country donor.
Since the onset of the Darfur crisis in 2003, the US has provided $1.9 billion in humanitarian and development assistance to Sudan, with $638 million for humanitarian assistance to Darfur alone, according to State Department figures. Of the Darfur amount, $467 million was provided last year alone.
Yet despite the deteriorating conditions for civilians and recent urgent appeals, the WFP says it has received just $238 million for emergency food assistance in all of Sudan this year - about a third of what it says it needs to adequately feed more than 6 million people. As a result, the organization says, refugees will receive about half of what is considered the minimum daily nutritional requirement.
"This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made," WFP Executive Director James Morris said upon announcing the cut. "Haven't the people of Darfur suffered enough?"
The announcement was clearly designed to press international donors that have fallen behind in their aid pledges. A falloff from pledges is a common problem in relief efforts. But Mr. Morris said in a statement that the Darfur shortfall is all the more anomalous given that overall development assistance to various countries has risen steeply in recent years, to more than $100 billion.
As for prospects for reaching an accord before the new deadline, rebel groups continued to say Monday that they saw no changes large enough to prompt them to sign an agreement. Some observers say that is unlikely to change until the draft agreement becomes more equitable in terms of the requirements placed on each side.
"The rebels have a point," says Prendergast of the International Crisis Group. "The agreement as it stands now is weighted towards the government" and heavily focused on rebel disarmament and reintegration, he says. "But they are not going to express themselves on that before there's a clearer outline of the political and economic issues at stake."
If a peace accord is reached, NATO has agreed to take on a supportive role in an international peacekeeping force for Darfur. The African Union has a small force in Darfur, but it has been completely overrun by the violence of rebels and pro-government militias.