After years of worldwide outrage over suffering in Darfur, the Obama administration will soon launch a new policy that could soften some longtime U.S. sanctions against the Sudanese government implicated in the large-scale killings and displacement of African tribespeople.
White House officials say that specific conditions would have to be met before sanctions would be lifted, and that Sudan could face even tougher sanctions if its leaders act in bad faith. But President Obama's handpicked envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, said in an interview Monday that the Khartoum government, which expelled humanitarian groups this year after an international court accused Sudan's president of war crimes in Darfur, has shown a willingness to work toward stabilizing Darfur in order to allow aid to be delivered.
"We see that there is a spirit of cooperation and an attitude of wanting to help," Gration said.
The American envoy acknowledged that lifting sanctions could help bolster the Sudanese government, but he said the new policy would be prudent and cautious.
"There's ways that we can roll back these sanctions in a way that allows us to lift the restrictions we need, such that the government continues to be sanctioned and military equipment continues to be sanctioned," he said.
The new approach has sparked fierce debate among Obama's advisors and is causing consternation among some of his strongest supporters, who had expected the president to toughen U.S. policy toward a government that he had sharply criticized as untrustworthy during last year's presidential campaign.
Broad restrictions were enacted by the Clinton administration 12 years ago against the Islamist-led regime in response to Khartoum's alleged harboring of terrorists such as Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and to the oppression of Christians and other minorities as part of Sudan's civil war.
U.S. foreign aid and almost all commercial ties are severely restricted.
Even floating the idea of lifting some sanctions -- something the Bush administration also contemplated -- is politically controversial.
Darfur has for years unified an unusual and vocal coalition of Hollywood stars, human rights activists, African Americans and evangelicals. As candidates last year, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton all vowed to maintain a hard line with Khartoum.
Obama's United Nations ambassador, Susan Rice, who as an advisor to the Clinton administration helped draft the sanctions, has argued for a tougher stance, declaring that genocide continues in Darfur.
Supporters of the more cooperative approach, such as Gration, argue that deaths have declined in Darfur and that U.S. sanctions are hurting efforts to build roads and other projects in southern Sudan that need to be in place by 2011. That is the year the region is expected to vote to secede from the country in a referendum that is a key component of a 2005 U.S.-brokered peace treaty that ended Sudan's 21-year civil war.
Gration cited as evidence of Khartoum's new cooperation the government's willingness to ease its stance against several international humanitarian organizations that had been forced to leave the country and accused of spying after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir in March.
Nearly a dozen aid groups were kicked out, but now several others have been granted entry -- though critics note that the initial banning has hampered delivery of aid.
The new White House policy is not likely to be announced for several weeks, but in interviews and congressional testimony, administration officials have begun to sketch it out.
They say the new policy would not contradict the president's campaign promises -- and would result in tougher restrictions if Khartoum failed to adhere to promises.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity while discussing internal policy deliberations, said any possible incentives would be presented as part of a package to entice the Sudanese regime to bring peace to Darfur and abide by the terms of the 2005 peace accord.
The International Criminal Court estimates that about 35,000 people have been killed by government troops and allied militias in the six-year war in Darfur against rebellious tribes. At least 100,000 more have died from disease and starvation, the ICC says.
The Obama policy will outline "what sort of steps we'd be prepared to take that would be attractive to the government of Sudan in response to changed conditions on the ground," the White House official said.
The official said the new approach would be contingent upon concrete action by the Khartoum regime to stabilize security nationwide and end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
"We have to see verifiable change for the Sudanese people," said the official, calling it a "misconception" that "somehow we want to take the [regime] out for ice cream and then think that that changes everything in Sudan."
Potential conciliation is particularly sensitive because of the war crime charges against Bashir. Some advocacy groups are planning for a marketing blitz designed to convince the White House to maintain pressure on Sudan in light of Gration's push to engage Khartoum.
The media effort will include YouTube videos and viral ads highlighting campaign promises from Obama and his team pledging tough action to save Darfur.
"We fear [Gration is] being too concessionary," said Randy Newcomb, president of Humanity United, a foundation that gets its money from the founders of EBay and is bankrolling the publicity campaign.
"These are people in the administration we've been friendly with, but we've got to keep the pressure on them to make sure they are very aggressive," Newcomb said.
Another advocate for a continued strong stance against Khartoum is Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), chairman of an Africa subcommittee, who said Gration's approach sounded "a little too gentle considering what [the Sudan government is] doing and what they've done in the past."
One quote likely to be used in the advocacy groups' effort comes from an Obama statement in April 2008, still available on the campaign website, in which he blasted possible normalization of relations with Sudan as "reckless and cynical" because it would "reward a regime in Khartoum that has a record of failing to live up to its commitments."
Administration officials said that engaging the Sudanese government reflects Obama's broader foreign policy goals of talking with adversaries, and it also fits with his outreach to the Muslim world.
But the deliberations have been contentious.
Gration, who traveled with then-Sen. Obama to Africa in 2006 and has developed a close rapport with the president, has pushed for engagement. He has even broken with official U.S. policy in declaring that the Darfur genocide is over, and only "remnants" remain.
Obama, like U.N. Ambassador Rice, has continued to use the term "genocide" in reference to current conditions in Darfur. However, he has remained in touch with Gration, meeting with him privately as recently as last week in the lead-up to the envoy's appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he argued for rolling back sanctions.
Gration said Monday that his actions and statements fall solidly within the bounds of what he expects the U.S. policy will be. "Obviously I'm staying in that framework, because I know what we're debating," he said.
Support for that change is driven in part by the Khartoum government's close cooperation with the CIA and FBI in sharing anti-terrorism intelligence related to Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia -- although some critics say Sudan's help has been exaggerated and began only after Sept. 11, when the regime feared being targeted by the U.S.
Sudanese officials accused the Bush administration of reneging on a promise to normalize relations in exchange for agreeing to the 2005 peace deal.
Now officials in Khartoum are praising Gration.
The envoy is "creating a healthy environment, rather than poisoning it, which will lead us to a place where people can sit and talk," said Sudanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs Samani Wasila.
He added that the government in the past has been alienated by U.S. envoys who have tried to rush through reforms or condemn the government.
Still, Wasila declined to say what steps his government has taken or will take in the coming weeks in exchange for improved U.S. relations.
More than 2.5 million people remain displaced in Darfur, where the crisis continues.