The Obama administration is weighing options to give an early reward to Sudan's government if a referendum that would allow the southern part of the country to secede takes place without a hitch.
Southern Sudanese in Sudan and in eight other countries turned out in large numbers at the start of the weeklong vote on Sunday. Sudanese in the U.S. voted at centers in Alexandria, Va.; Omaha, Neb.; and Phoenix.
"We want to do something in the immediate term to recognize a successful referendum, and we are thinking of ways we can do that," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the delicate nature of the matter. "But we also need to be sure that the achievements to date are at a place where they can't be rolled back."
The Obama administration already has offered to normalize relations between Washington and Khartoum if Sudan's government fully implements the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended more than two decades of civil war that killed nearly 2 million people in Africa's largest nation.
The U.S. has said it will consider taking Sudan off a list of state sponsors of terrorism, appoint an ambassador and allow additional licenses to increase trade and investment opportunities in Sudan.
But these steps will be taken only after the referendum's outcome has been decided and implemented.
On Sunday, Salva Kiir, president of the semiautonomous government of Southern Sudan, cast his vote at a polling station in the south's capital, Juba.
"This is the historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for," Mr. Kiir said, according to an Associated Press report.
Turnout was higher than expected in the south, where long lines formed outside polling stations.
Observing the lines in Juba, a U.S. official remarked that it would take a while before people got to vote.
"We have waited years for this. What is another hour or two?" voters replied enthusiastically.
The international community is worried about the fate of Christian and animist southerners living in the north and Arab Muslim northerners in the south.
A couple of hundred thousand southerners who were living in the north crossed into the south ahead of the vote.
Former President Jimmy Carter; Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat; Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy for Sudan; and actor George Clooney were among those who observed the vote.
"We know that there are those who may try to disrupt the voting," President Obama said in a statement.
"All sides should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric or provocative actions that could raise tensions or prevent voters from expressing their will," he added.
Sudanese officials, in the north and the south, have expressed a commitment to ensure a peaceful vote. Western officials are hopeful.
"Things are going, surprisingly, in a positive direction. There is an expectation that the transition to a new state won't be as difficult as was imagined," a Western official based in Southern Sudan said in a phone interview on the condition of anonymity.
Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes for atrocities in the western province of Darfur, is facing growing criticism from northerners who blame him for the likely loss of the south.
Legally, Southern Sudan cannot make a declaration of independence until July. Post-referendum issues, including border demarcation, oil revenue-sharing, currency and citizenship, are to be settled after the vote.
Western officials and analysts say the biggest flash point is the oil-rich province of Abyei. Under the CPA, a second referendum to decide whether Abyei would go with the south if it secedes also was to be held this week.
Officials from the north and the south have not made much headway in talks on Abyei.
The northerners want to guarantee political rights for the nomadic Misseriya tribe that migrates through Abyei with their livestock, while the southerners want to ensure ownership of the land by the Ngok Dinka tribe.
"Abyei hasn't been resolved, and to say the people there who were expecting to have a referendum on the ninth of January will be disappointed is an inadequate term to express their frustrations," said Jacqueline Wilson, senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
At least eight people were killed in clashes between Misseriya and Ngok Dinka in Abyei over the weekend, according to an Agence France-Presse report.
Mr. Obama said violence in the Abyei region should cease.
Northern Sudanese officials have said they will respect the results of the referendum.
Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed, deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, said Lt. Gen. Bashir's government is committed to a peaceful vote and would like to see steps to improve U.S.-Sudan ties implemented "as soon as possible."
Obama administration officials are examining what latitude they have to work within the strict international sanctions on Sudan that have been in place for the better part of the past two decades.
"We are now faced with the dilemma of needing to, for our own national security interests, ensure that the north does not collapse into something more extreme or chaotic than we face now," the senior U.S. official said. "And as we search for ways to do that, we are finding constraints at every corner."
The U.S. also is looking at partner relationships with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank to see what can be done to ensure that the north is not destabilized by the loss of the south.
The Obama administration is working with its partners to find a way to ensure separation between north and south Sudan is "not a win-lose, but a win-win," the senior U.S. official said.
"We don't want Khartoum to be exclusively on the losing end of this deal," the official added.
Jendayi Frazer, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the George W. Bush administration, said it will be difficult for the Obama administration to improve relations with the north while there is a war taking place in Darfur.
"Without the resolution of Darfur, there is no way the Obama administration will be able to fully restore relations with Sudan," said Ms. Frazer, who is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Under the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act (DPAA), even if Khartoum were to fully implement the CPA, U.S. disincentives would remain in place because of the conflict in Darfur.
In November, Mr. Kerry delivered a message from the Obama administration to leaders in Khartoum that the U.S. would delink the removal of Sudan from the terrorism list from Darfur.
Sudan was added to the U.S. list in 1993 for harboring terrorists; at the time, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network were based in Sudan. Recent U.S. assessments have found Sudan is no longer sponsoring terrorism.
Mr. Obama has the option of issuing an executive order to take Sudan off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but such a move would irk some members of Congress.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and co-chairman of the bipartisan Sudan Caucus in Congress, has been a longtime advocate for southern Sudan. He says the Obama administration must not rush to reward the north.
"You want to wait and see what happens with the elections and [the government in Khartoum's] response. Not just their response the next day or the next week, but the next year," Mr. Wolf said in a phone interview.
Gen. Bashir has made encouraging comments in recent weeks.
The Obama administration was pleasantly surprised by Gen. Bashir's visit last week to Juba, where he promised to respect the outcome of the referendum.
"It was such an act of political courage because there are a lot of very disgruntled people in the north who are upset with Omar Bashir for what they perceive to be the imminent loss of the south and partition of their country," the senior U.S. official said.
"Despite knowing that, he went to the south and wrote the first chapter of what will be a new relationship between two eventual independent countries," the official added.
Southerners also are doing their bit to ensure the referendum is not upended.
Mr. Kiir has said the south will no longer provide a safe haven for Darfuri rebels and northern Sudanese political opposition.
"All these things give us great hope that it will be a peaceful time in southern Sudan this is a milestone, but it is certainly not the end," the senior U.S. official said.
Mr. Wolf is skeptical.
"Bashir has probably made more promises that he has not kept than promises that he has kept," Mr. Wolf said. "I won't say I am optimistic that he will keep this promise but I want to be wrong."
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