- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2011

A decision by an overwhelming majority of southerners to secede from Sudan likely will put new pressure on President Omar al-Bashir’s fragile regime in a region rocked by anti-government protests.

The Obama administration, worried about the stability of the regime, is closely monitoring Khartoum’s reaction to the outcome of the secession vote, anti-government protests and fighting in the western province of Darfur.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, said the Obama administration has been very candid with Lt. Gen. al-Bashir’s government about the need to act with restraint.

U.S. and southern Sudanese officials are worried that a collapse of Gen. al-Bashir’s government could imperil the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Gen. al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) signed the agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). It ended two decades of civil war in which 2 million people were killed.

“Right now we all are concerned that if there is a party to [the CPA] that loses its way, it could imperil the peace agreement that we are trying to implement and could imperil the last elements of this agreement, which are really the most critical,” said the senior U.S. official.

Gen. al-Bashir on Monday said he would respect the decision of the southerners, who are mostly black Christians or animists, to secede from the north, dominated by Arab Muslims.

An official tally of the vote was announced at an emotionally charged ceremony in Khartoum on Monday. It showed that 98.83 percent of southerners favored secession. Out of more 3.8 million valid ballots cast, fewer than 45,000, or 1.17 percent, favored unity with the north.

The senior U.S. official said Gen. al-Bashir’s recognition of the results was a sign that the NCP had realized that the “downside risks of contesting this were so great that it was likely not worth the costs to the regime.”

Critics in Sudan have accused Gen. al-Bashir of losing the oil-rich south. The political upheaval sweeping across the Arab world, including in Sudan’s northern neighbor Egypt, has underscored the fragile state of his government.

“Events in the region highlight what we have known to be true for a long time, which is that the NCP is in a very precarious position domestically,” the senior U.S. official said.

Gen. al-Bashir also faces an International Criminal Court indictment over alleged war crimes in Darfur.

In a sign that it intends to reward Gen. al-Bashir’s government, the Obama administration has initiated steps to take Sudan off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, requesting an intelligence community assessment of Sudan’s support for terrorist activities. The process, including congressional action, could take several months.

Recent six-month reviews conducted by U.S. intelligence agencies have found that Sudan is not supporting terrorism.

Mrs. Clinton linked delisting to the complete implementation of the CPA, including a political solution on the oil-producing region of Abyei and other pending post-referendum issues.

Officials from the north and south are stuck in an impasse over a host of post-referendum issues, including the fate of Abyei, the division of oil revenue, demarcation of the new border, national debt and citizenship.

The U.S. has said it will appoint an ambassador and allow additional licenses to increase trade and investment opportunities in Sudan once the CPA has been fully implemented.

Gen. al-Bashir on Monday pledged to protect southerners in the north and work to resolve all outstanding issues between the north and south by July.

However, he added that any resolution of Abyei must cover the rights of the Misseriya, Arab nomads that annually pass through the region.

David Choat, a representative of the autonomous Government of Southern Sudan in Washington, said stability of the north is a key concern for southerners.

“It is in our interests that they do well, and it should be in their interests that we do well. We are going to be neighbors for life,” he said.

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