The U.S. is offering to gradually normalize relations with Sudan if the government in Khartoum settles issues such as the Darfur crisis and carries out elections next year, U.S. and Sudanese diplomats said Friday.
Sudan would have to remove obstacles to the deployment of a U.N.-led peacekeeping force, stop violence against civilians in Darfur, release U.S. shipping containers stuck in customs and carry out the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan, including elections in 2009, officials said.
Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, called it "a strategic shift," made possible by his government's "exemplary" cooperation on terrorism matters.
"Each side is exchanging papers on each aspect," he said. "The biggest reward would be normal relations with the U.S."
But some officials on both sides were skeptical. The U.S. has previously offered to improve diplomatic ties if Sudan met certain demands, but after Khartoum did so, relations remained unchanged.
Richard Williamson, the U.S. envoy to Sudan, confirmed that he discussed the Bush administration's incentives and requirements with President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir during a meeting last month in Khartoum. The U.S. offered to restore full diplomatic ties, lift sanctions and remove Khartoum from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism, Williamson said.
"There needs to be progress on the humanitarian and security side before there can be progress on other issues of concern to both sides," he said. "And we try to be very clear and be specific about the timing and what sort of things that are required."
He declined to provide details.
"Right now this is a discussion between the government of Sudan and the government of the United States, and it helps no one if we start to negotiate in public," he said. "The bottom-line goal is you have got to alleviate suffering and provide enough security on the ground so that people can return home in Darfur. Short of that, nothing else matters."
To help the process, the U.S. is increasing pressure on the U.N. to speed the deployment of peacekeepers to Darfur, pushing for 3,600 new troops in Sudan's western region by June.
In a letter delivered Thursday to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Williamson criticized delays in sending troops to Darfur, and asked the United Nations' peacekeeping department to be more flexible in its requirements for troops and equipment.
"At this crucial moment, the deployment of new troops as quickly as possible is our best hope to change the course of this tragedy," he wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
In an interview, Williamson said that it was "pathetic" that only 290 new personnel had arrived in Darfur since January, when the U.N. absorbed 9,000 police officers and soldiers from the African Union force already there. He suggested, among other things, that the U.N. pay for the soldiers' equipment and food rather than wait for their home countries to provide the supplies.
He said that "impediments" by Khartoum also had slowed the force's arrival. Sudan refused to allow it to enter the country for nearly a year. It then demanded that the soldiers be African, and has rejected troops from Europe, Thailand and Nepal. It also has delayed providing land and water for the force's bases.
"One thing that can contribute to stability is getting boots on the ground," Williamson said. "Why aren't we doing it with a greater urgency? That is the question the U.S. wants answered. And we are very frustrated."
The demand has ruffled feathers at the U.N., which has been trying to get forces and equipment from reluctant countries for nearly a year, while contending with the obstacles created by Khartoum. It also highlights a rift in the U.N. between the Security Council, which ordered about 26,000 soldiers and police to be sent to Darfur, and the peacekeeping department, which believes that the force would lack the funding and equipment to defend itself or civilians.
Peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno has warned that "there is no peace to keep" in Darfur, where conflict between rebels and the government and its proxy militias is entering its sixth year.
Guehenno steps down in June when his contract is up for renewal, partly due to the disagreement over strategy.
Peacekeeping officials say that they too want to get troops to Darfur as soon as possible, but that there is no magic number that will turn the tide in the region.
The department has also been looking for 18 transport helicopters that can fly at night, and six with long-range attack capabilities, to cover the vast spaces of Darfur, a barren region nearly the size of France. The United States has not offered any.
The U.S. is $668 million in arrears this year for the Darfur mission and other peacekeeping operations, according to the U.N., but Washington last month gave an additional $100 million for training.
One peacekeeping official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak for the department, said it was encouraging that the U.S. was sitting down with the U.N. and other countries to learn about the technical requirements to expedite the deployment.
"It is a good thing that the U.S. is engaged," he said. "We all want troops to get there as fast as possible, and we want them to be capable troops." But, he added, the focus should be on the peace process as well.
Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Khartoum contributed to this report.