WASHINGTON -- The United States has unveiled a new strategy for dealing with war-torn Sudan, maintaining its harsh economic sanctions on the East African nation while offering incentives in hopes of ending genocide in the country's Darfur region.
President Barack Obama issued a statement saying that if the government of Omar al-Bashir takes concrete action to improve the situation on the ground, his administration will offer him incentives to take further action.
But if al-Bashir continues on his government's present course, Obama said the United States and international community will increase the pressure on Khartoum.
Obama said it is time to "seek a definitive end to conflict, gross human rights abuses, and genocide in Darfur."
Genocide has been the chief concern in Sudan since the country's civil war began six years ago, and it was recognized as such by the administration of former President George W. Bush.
In April, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for al-Bashir's arrest on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
At a White House briefing on October 19, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs defended Obama's decision to change the policy.
"This is a comprehensive policy that will not just deal with one aspect of the process but will deal with both the humanitarian crisis that we face in Darfur, as well as continuing progress toward a comprehensive north-south peace agreement," Gibbs said. "Our policy includes pressure on the Sudanese government and incentives."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a State Department news conference that the U.S. focus in Sudan will continue to be protecting Sudan's civilian population and disarming the pro-government militias responsible for most of the bloodshed.
"I have been speaking out and acting on this [genocide] issue for a number of years. And the president also has spoken out about the genocide that is taking place in Darfur," Clinton said. "But at this point, the focus must be on how we move forward and on finding solutions. Even while the intensity of the violence has decreased since 2005, the people of Darfur continue to live in unconscionable and unacceptable conditions."
'Realistic About The Hurdles'
While Bush's policy focused on sanctions alone, Obama says he will combine sanctions with what Clinton called "a menu of incentives and disincentives."
Clinton didn't offer specifics, but she acknowledged that the new policy will bring new challenges.
"We are realistic about the hurdles to progress. Achieving peace and stability in Sudan will not be easy, nor is success guaranteed," she said. "But one thing is certain: The problems in Sudan cannot be ignored or willed away. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option."
Until now, the Obama administration has been divided on how to address the turmoil in Sudan.
General Scott Gration, the president's special ambassador for Sudan, has argued that the situation can only be improved through meaningful engagement with al-Bashir.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has called for harsher treatment, and brings the perspective of serving as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in former President Bill Clinton's White House.
Georgette Gagnon, the Africa director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said her group generally welcomes the new White House policy, but that there are some worrying elements.
On the positive side, she praised Obama's increased support of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and his support for the Darfur peace process, including efforts to end sex-based violence against women, a cause Clinton deeply supports.
But Gagnon said she worries that the policy doesn't set out benchmarks for progress by the Khartoum government on improving human rights in Sudan.
And she said Obama and Clinton weren't clear about what they meant when they spoke of "additional pressure on Sudan."
"[The Obama administration is] saying the right things and indicating increased support for a whole number of things that absolutely need to be done," Gagnon says. "But the issue will be how they actually implement and how they're going to pressure the Sudanese government to change its abusive behavior. That's always been the issue."
The conflict in Darfur began in February 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government, which is mostly made up of ethnic Arabs.
Since then, at least 300,000 people have died from fighting, disease, and displacement from their homes. Al-Bashir's government puts the death toll at around 10,000.