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Iraq casts doubt over Darfur options

December 13, 2006

By Guy Dinmore in Washington and Daniel Dombey in Brussels
December 13 2006 03:43

The crisis in Iraq has left US and British officials wary of waging a further unilateral action in a hostile Muslim country. “You must go to the dance with a partner,” says one Washington official.

But the worsening violence in Sudan’s Darfur region has led the allies to look at various last-ditch military options, including a US naval blockade of Sudan’s Red Sea coast, targeted air strikes, or imposition of a no-fly zone over Darfur. That last option has received Tony Blair’s backing, on the condition that it has UN approval.

Both Mr Blair and President George W. Bush are said to feel a deep commitment to end the killings in Darfur that London labels a “crime against humanity” and Washington calls genocide. Aides describe concerns about their historical legacy hanging over two leaders already weighed down by the debacle in Iraq and a fear of being seen to have allowed a repeat of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

A rare coalition of interests at home would be prepared to back Mr Bush over action on Sudan. Neo-conservatives and liberals, and the American public in general, favour US intervention, though many want concerted international action.

In October, a call for US military strikes was penned by two Clinton administration officials, Susan Rice and Anthony Lake, and a Democrat congressman, Donald Payne, who will soon take over leadership of the House subcommittee on Africa.

The US, they said, should press for a UN resolution to give Sudan an ultimatum to accept unconditional deployment of the UN force within one week or face military consequences, including strikes against airfields and other military assets, and a blockade of Port Sudan to stop oil exports. If the UN balked, then the US should go ahead anyway.

A senior US official declined to comment on specific plans. “There’s a num-ber of options. It depends on how things break down,” he said. The Pentagon was involved in consultations, he added. Bryan Whitman, Pentagon spokesman, said the defence department had done no planning for a Sudan mission.

The preferred option for Washington and London is that Khartoum accept the latest international proposal for a “hybrid” force combining UN troops with the 7,000 hapless peacekeepers of the African Union (AU) already deployed over an area the size of France.

Both Mr Blair and Mr Bush have cited the newly enshrined but vaguely defined UN doctrine of “responsibility to protect” as justification for Darfur action. Washington has already raised the stakes by publicly giving Mr Bashir a January 1 deadline to accept international demands or face “plan B”.

The components of this plan are secret but officials hint that it involves financial sanctions targeted against individuals and corporations, using measures applied with some success against North Korea and Iran to put pressure on the financial sector to freeze accounts and halt business.

The US administration may also put to one side its ideological dislike of the International Criminal Court and supply evidence needed to convict Khartoum’s leadership of war crimes.

British officials hope they could pass future resolutions on Sudan at the UN Security Council with the abstentions of Russia, China and Qatar. If such measures fail, however, the US plans would call for another ad hoc “coalition of the willing” to pursue coercive measures, preferably with UN backing, though China’s veto power in the Security Council would probably block this. China is Sudan’s main oil customer.

“Plans B to F are on the table,” a State Department official said. She was not authorised to speak about possible military intervention, but confirmed that the US wanted to work with France in Chad, where Paris has a small contingent of troops, to help President Idris Deby fend off Sudanese-backed rebels.

French diplomats said there had been no approach yet from Washington about military action and Paris would only envisage military initiatives within a multilateral framework.

Stephen Morrison, Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the idea of military intervention in Sudan was “a fantasy that draws on the neocon vision that got us into Iraq”; US threats carried less weight now, and China would not pull the plug on its oil imports.

The “Iraq syndrome”, as some diplomats call it, plays mainly to Mr Bashir’s advantage. His government is buoyed by anti-western sentiment among Muslim allies, kept afloat by soaring oil revenues and cushioned by diplomatic support from China, its main customer.

As long as they remain bogged down in Iraq, Mr Bashir believes, Mr Bush and Mr Blair are mouthing empty threats. Many in Washington would agree.

• The White House fuelled concerns about its strategy for dealing with Iraq on Tuesday when it delayed a speech by President George W. Bush that would have laid out his “new way forward” for the country, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said Mr Bush had “decided, frankly” that the speech was “not ready yet” and that it would not be delivered until the new year.

We do not know when, so I can’t give a date, I can’t give you a time, I can’t give you a place.”

Over the past two weeks the White House had sought to convey a sense of urgency on Iraq, choreographing high-profile meetings with Mr Bush and officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and Iraq itself

Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, defended the delay, saying Robert Gates, the incoming secretary of defence, would start work on December 18, “so it’s very important he will have an opportunity to participate in the develop- ment of that strategy”.

Additional reporting by Peggy Hollinger in Paris

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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