- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

This week, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Sudan, the site of a raging humanitarian crisis that has already taken 30,000 lives since early 2003. In the Darfur region of western Sudan, Arab-dominated militias are violently taking over land and water resources used by farmers. The Sudanese government in Khartoum has been complicit at worse and at best devastatingly negligent in the conflict.

With the aid of Mr. Powell, the Sudanese government and rebel groups from the south recently reached a historic resolution on a two-decades-long conflict on the sharing of oil resources in a country of pronounced scarcity — and the parameters of self-rule among Arabs, Christians and others. The Khartoum government is predominantly Arab and, like most of the rest of the Sudan, Islamic. The signing of the peace accord illustrates to governments and insurgents around the globe that even the most intractable disputes can be resolved.

But that accord has been soured in the face of the outbreak of Sudan’s second conflict in the western region of Darfur. There, after some years of fighting over scarce arable land and water, farmers rebelled against Khartoum for favoring Arab communities. But ethnic divisions are not always clearly delineated. For centuries, ethnic groups coexisted and even intermarried.

The visit by Mr. Powell, and the subsequent visit by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, helps to catapult the crisis to the global limelight. But action is long overdue. More than 1 million people have been driven from their homes, and about 2 million are in desperate need of aid. During Mr. Powell’s visit, the Sudanese government initially denied the scale and nature of the crisis, but shortly afterward promised to send more forces to bolster security, ease restrictions on aid workers and dispatch a high-level team to Chad to negotiate with rebel groups from Darfur.

The United States and the United Nations must be actively engaged in solving the Sudan crisis. But both should allow, to the largest extent possible, the African Union to take the lead in handling the conflict. A number of African nations have voiced their concern over Darfur and their willingness to help. What is needed now is an immediate cease-fire to be monitored by African Union forces and vigorous negotiation to find a settlement to the land and water disputes.

A U.S. resolution calling for a U.N. arms embargo and travel ban would deliver an international rebuke to combatants. More important, though, will be the African Union meeting next month. That summit will determine to what extent African leaders themselves are prepared to seriously deal with this homegrown humanitarian catastrophe.

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