- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama met with activist-actor George Clooney at the White House on Tuesday to discuss U.S. involvement in Sudan ahead of a critical election early next year in Africa’s largest nation.

Clooney recently returned from Sudan, and is asking the U.S. and world community to use international pressure and robust diplomacy to prevent violence ahead of the Jan. 9 election. The election is an independence referendum on south Sudan that is likely to split the country in two, and there are fears that the vote could lead to a new outbreak of north-south civil war.

“At a time that is one of the most politicized times ever, this is something that everyone agrees on: If there’s some way to get ahead of this and stop it before it happens, we better,” Clooney said following his meeting with the president.

Obama and Clooney were joined in their talks by activist John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project, an initiative to end genocide. Prendergast said U.S. involvement in containing violence before the election could be a “game-changer” for the Sudanese people.

“It gives a chance to diplomacy,” Prendergast said. “It gives a chance to peacemaking that didn’t exist three months ago.”

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama underscored U.S. efforts to ensure that the referendum be held on time and that all parties involved refrain from violence. However, Obama said in the meeting that the ultimate responsibility for Sudan’s future rests with its political leaders.

Still Obama has made clear that the U.S. has a deep interest in that future. He met with other world leaders at the United Nations in September to address concerns that preparations for the January vote were lagging, and said the coming months may show whether the Sudanese people “move forward with peace or slip backward into bloodshed.”

A 2005 peace agreement that ended a bloody 21-year civil war between Sudan’s mostly Muslim north and predominantly animist and Christian south set up a unity government in the capital, Khartoum, as well as an autonomous government in the south. It called for the 2011 referendum on southern independence.

The civil war, in which nearly 2 million people died, was one of the bloodiest of the second half of the 20th century.

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