Just as a flurry of diplomatic activity raised hopes of imminent action on an expanded peacekeeping force for Darfur, a new crisis in the Horn of Africa threatens to divert international attention.
Ethiopia's recent incursion into Somalia may have returned a stable government to the conflict-torn country for the first time in more than 15 years. But by routing Islamist rebels, Ethiopia's action also holds geopolitical implications for the war on terror. And in the midst of these developments, the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir could find the pressure off for accepting a robust United Nations-mandated security force for Darfur, experts say.
After months of stalling, Mr. Bashir last week announced his readiness to accept an expanded international security presence in Darfur, the vast southern region where more than 200,000 people have died and millions more have been displaced. The fighting pits the region's black Christian population against forces aligned with the majority Arab and Muslim government.
Sudan says it will allow the first of more than 175 UN advisers and peacekeeping staff officers to deploy in Darfur within days. UN diplomats hoped this would be the foot in the door for a much larger peacekeeping force to fortify the 7,000 African Union security soldiers already there.
But Sudanese officials continue to offer conflicting statements on the size and makeup of any force, although some say it is no longer a question of the 20,000-strong force of blue helmets the Security Council approved for Darfur in August. The ambiguity and backtracking by the Sudanese government is leading some observers to speculate that Bashir may be finding Somalia's crisis a convenient cover for further procrastination.
"The international interest in Darfur is not going away. But at a broader level, Bashir must realize that there's only so much time in a day and so much energy that diplomats can put into one region," says Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "If a roiling crisis in the Horn of Africa puts Darfur and Sudan into the back pages and becomes a major preoccupation in the Security Council for a couple of months, it may be just what Bashir needs to drag things out."
After Somalia's provisional government retook the capital of Mogadishu from the rebels of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) last week, diplomats have been trying to arrange an African peacekeeping force for the country. The diplomats want peacekeepers to replace forces from Ethiopia, a majority Christian country held in disregard by Muslim Somalians. So far, a few African countries appear to have offered forces.
Still, with overtones of the US war on terror in both Somalia and Sudan, some observers worry that US action in the globally strategic region will be driven even more by security interests than by humanitarian concerns.
"All along with Sudan, the US has put other interests above the humanitarian crisis. And we can expect to see more of that with the support for Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia," says Nii Akuetteh, executive director of Africa Action, a Washington advocacy group supporting international intervention in Darfur. "What else explains the gulf between the American leadership – including President Bush – describing what is happening in Darfur as genocide, and the steps to do something about it?"
Mr. Akuetteh says the United States has welcomed Sudanese intelligence officials for briefings with the CIA – despite some of those same officials' association with the Janjaweed, the notorious pro-government militia responsible for many of the deaths in Darfur.
"The explanation seems to be that the US values terrorism intelligence over the genocide issue," he says.
Some experts say Sudan's ability to resist a robust UN force in Darfur is another example among many of waning American influence in Africa. But others, like Akuetteh, say the US continues to have leverage with Khartoum.
Andrew Natsios, White House special envoy on Darfur, has warned Sudanese officials that the US would consider a "Plan B" for getting action on Darfur if Sudan did not approve a peacekeeping force by Jan. 1.
But Mr. Morrison of CSIS qualifies much of the current threatening by the US as "smoke" to cover for a lack of options in an environment of weakened influence. Three options the US is considering – imposing a no-fly zone over Darfur, blocking the financial transactions of individuals targeted for abuses in Darfur, or seeking action by the International Criminal Court – have drawbacks and would be of limited impact, he says.
"We tend to forget that the US had a lot of leverage in Sudan after 9/11 and was able to use that to make important headway," says Morrison. "But then came the blowback from the invasion of Iraq, and Bashir was able to play off the animosity in the Arab community."
Others say the loss of leverage the US has suffered in Sudan could be joined by heightened disregard for the US among the world's Muslims, given tacit American support for Ethiopia's entry into Somalia against the Islamists of the ICU.
"For many Muslims this will be seen as, 'Once again, the US supports attacks on a Muslim government and state," says David Smock, an expert at the US Institute of Peace who specializes in Africa and the interplay of politics and religion.
Mr. Smock sees little evidence to support State Department claims that the ICU controls an Al Qaeda cell in Somalia. But what does worry him, he says, is a Somalia that remains unstable because of fighting among warlords – which leads to the prospect of it becoming a major terrorist haven.
"We've seen this happen in Iraq," he says, "and I fear the same could happen here: A Muslim country that is exaggerated as a terrorist base is invaded by a non-Muslim power, and in the ensuing chaos it becomes one."
• Material from wire services was used in this report.