The Bush administration has offered Air Force transport planes and crews to airlift thousands of additional African peacekeeping troops into Sudan's war-torn Darfur region this summer, State Department officials say.
The airlift proposal is part of a larger effort, including at least $50 million in U.S. aid and offers of equipment and military advisors from other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to help African countries more effectively enforce an unstable cease-fire in Darfur, the officials said in recent days.
But the offer of help to the African Union, a regional organization of countries, also reflects what the United States has decided not to do in Darfur, where predominantly Arab militias allegedly supplied by the Sudanese government have been attacking black villagers since 2003.
The Bush administration has rejected suggestions that it toughen its sanctions against the Sudanese government in Khartoum, as well as calls from Congress for a U.S.-enforced "no-fly" zone to prevent suspected government bombing of villages in Darfur.
Instead, it is pressing Sudan to allow international observers aboard its military aircraft, the officials said.
The officials confirmed details of U.S. plans that until now had been described only in general terms by the administration. The officials spoke on condition that they not be identified by name because of State Department rules that forbid most officials from speaking publicly unless they restrict themselves to the language of prepared policy statements.
Critics have charged that the administration isn't doing enough to stop the violence in Darfur, Sudan's westernmost region where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, allegedly in government-sponsored reprisals for a black rebel uprising. In September, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused Sudan of genocide.
Bush administration officials now say their diplomatic efforts to put pressure on Khartoum are slowly working, and that the United States has moved faster and further on the issue than most other countries.
"The United States has been providing the leading role when it comes to addressing the problems in Sudan," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said last week. "The violence must end in Darfur, and both parties have an obligation to work to make that happen. And we have been very supportive of the African Union mission."
Despite the continuing conflict, U.S. officials insist that international efforts are progressing.
"It's been terribly frustrating," said a senior State Department official involved in running the effort. "When villages are being burned, when 2.4 million people are displaced, it's hard to say we're doing something and making progress. But we are, and we're beginning to see some movement."
The option of putting U.S. troops on the ground in Darfur was never seriously considered in administration discussions, officials said. The Pentagon has said that U.S. combat forces are stretched thin by long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the administration has shown little appetite for deploying troops for what is sometimes called humanitarian intervention.
"It's almost a given," the State Department official said. "It's just not a viable option." Asked why the administration wasn't considering sending troops, McClellan replied: "We support the efforts of the African Union.... This is something that affects all those countries in Africa, and we're working to support their efforts to expand their forces there."
Officials said they had been working hard to put pressure on Khartoum and to organize more international support for the AU's peacekeeping force, which is scheduled to grow from about 2,200 troops now to more than 7,000 in the fall and 13,000 next year.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has pressed other NATO members to join the U.S. in offering aid and military backup to the AU. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick visited Khartoum and Darfur last month to urge a political settlement to the conflict.
"We want to be as active as we possibly can in support of that [AU] mission," Rice said last week.
The conflict in Darfur began in early 2003 when non-Arab rebel groups began attacking government installations. The government struck back with force, mostly, it is suspected, by supporting -- and in some cases directing -- Arab militias' attacks on civilians.
Khartoum has denied any connection to the militias, but evidence of its direct role is substantial, including Sudanese air force raids against villages. Government troops have also periodically blocked international relief groups' access to refugee camps.
Estimates of civilian deaths in Darfur range from 60,000 -- the low end of a range cited by the State Department last month -- to 400,000. An estimated 2.4 million have fled their homes, many to refugee camps in neighboring Chad.
Though the African Union force would be too small to patrol all of Darfur, which is about the size of Texas, U.S. and AU officials say that even the small force now in place has made a modest improvement.
"It is having an impact," the State Department official said. "Where they are deployed, it is a deterrent to violence.... You might only have 100 people in an area, but still the area will be covered. The Khartoum government does not want to be seen as having a role [in the violence], so having monitors there has a dampening effect."
Rice agreed, saying last week that "when there are monitors in the region, the violence subsides."
The State Department official said the AU forces were hindered by limited resources.
"The problem with the AU is not political will or ability to do it," he said. "It's logistical constraints -- not enough vehicles ... radio frequencies [of different countries' units] don't match up ... the bureaucratic inefficiency of the command and control structure. Now that is being worked out."
A Pentagon spokesman said it was too early to discuss any specific U.S. aid to the AU.
"It's premature to ask what the U.S. plan would be, because the AU has not yet made a request," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter said. But he noted that the United States sent three Air Force C-130 transport planes to Rwanda in October to help the AU with its initial deployment in Darfur, as well as other logistics support.
"Africa is a big continent -- it's not easy to get from point A to point B," he said. "We would be an enabling force."
Those steps have not been enough for critics of the administration, who include Republicans and Democrats. Last month, Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) won passage in the Senate for a measure demanding an international arms embargo and other U.N. sanctions against Sudan, along with a formal no-fly zone to stop Sudanese military flights over Darfur.
The administration opposed the measure, and House Republican leaders deleted it from the final version of a supplemental appropriations bill.
The White House has said that a no-fly zone, like those established in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, would require U.S. or NATO planes and personnel for enforcement.
Instead, the administration wants Khartoum, which denies using its air force against civilians, to allow African Union observers on all their aircraft in the region. Observers would have the same effect, the administration argues.
"The government has not used helicopter gunships or Antonov bombers since January," the State Department official said. "There isn't any offensive military flying in Darfur now. That isn't a formal no-fly zone."
Critics also say the administration's effort to cultivate a close relationship with Sudan's intelligence agency, which has helped Washington in its campaign against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, has softened any pressure the U.S. has applied.
Last month, the CIA invited the chief of the Sudanese intelligence service, Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, to make an official visit to Washington, and sent an executive jet to pick him up. Human rights groups charge that Gosh has been one of the chief architects of Sudan's campaign against civilians in Darfur.
The U.S. government has not publicly acknowledged Gosh's visit, which it considers classified. But the State Department official said the CIA, acting on instructions from the White House, delivered a strong message to Gosh that the United States would insist that attacks against civilians end.
"Darfur was discussed with him, and discussed at length," the official said. "The message has been absolutely consistent, from the top levels: Counterterrorism cooperation is good ... but it's not going to lead to any change in the relationship unless you do the other things we're asking.
"There was never any thought that we should cut them slack on other issues in order to get counter-terrorism cooperation," he said.
The most effective way to end the violence in Darfur, the official said, is to ensure that peace talks between the Khartoum government and the rebels succeed. Negotiations are scheduled to resume in June.