- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

Sadiq al Mahdi, a former prime minister of Sudan, has called for an all-parties agreement that would settle his nation’s 21-year-old civil war and address the grievances of black Africans in the western region of Darfur.

The agreement also would involve the major political parties and movements in Africa’s largest nation.

The Muslim Arab government in Khartoum and its allied militias, called the Janjaweed, have moved brutally to crush the insurgency, burning villages and killing civilians in an action described last week by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as “genocide.”

“I would not call it genocide,” Mr. Mahdi told The Washington Times last week.

“The consequences have been frightful, but for a situation to reach the level of genocide, it must clearly have [as its goal] the extermination of an entire ethnic or religious group within a society.”

Although he took exception the characterization, Mr. Mahdi praised the United States for its “pragmatism” in seeking solutions to the bloodletting.

The stakes for the United States are immense — hefty oil reserves in Sudan, the risk of another failed state and pressure from religious interests in the United States to secure a nearly completed settlement between the Islamic north and the largely Christian south.

“The situation has developed enough where Sudan should work for an all-parties agreement with South Africa as the model,” Mr. Mahdi said.

He was referring to talks a decade ago between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk and the subsequent inclusion of leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. These talks produced a transfer of political power from an apartheid government to a black majority.

After he was ousted in a military coup in 1989, Mr. Mahdi joined an alliance based in nearby Eritrea against the current government, which until the September 11 attacks supported radical Islam.

President Omar Hassan Bashir subsequently ousted radical Islamist ideologue Hassan Turabi, placed him under house arrest and began seriously seeking a solution to the southern rebellion led by Col. John Garang.

Mr. Mahdi left the Eritrea-based alliance because he was “fed up with the bickering” and has sought a way for the country to move toward democracy and the rule of law.

As a direct descendant of the 19th century Mahdi who defeated British colonial forces led by Lord Kitchener at Khartoum, the former prime minister remains one of the most influential men in Sudan.

He said the progress of negotiations with the southern rebels had encouraged him to hope for a more sweeping settlement of Sudan’s agonizing problems, rooted in race, diverse ethnicity and religious intolerance.

But it is equally likely that the Darfur insurgency will disrupt the progress in the south. Sudanese Ambassador Khidir Haroun Ahmed told The Washington Times in April that it would be “hard to settle with the south as long as an insurgency rattles the West.”

Mr. Powell visited Sudan in July and, upon his return, asked the State Department for a report on the situation. This report was cited by the secretary as the basis of his conclusion that genocide had occurred.

The United States also is pressing the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution threatening sanctions if the government fails to halt the violence in Darfur.

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