WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States hopes next month's presidential election in Sudan will set the stage for a "civil divorce, not a civil war" over moves by the oil-rich south to secede, the Obama administration's special envoy said on Thursday.
Scott Gration acknowledged problems with preparations for the April vote. But he said it should still occur on time so democratic structures are put in place to deal with the looming issue of the status of southern Sudan, which will be decided by a referendum next January.
He said the United States was prepared for any eventual secession vote and was working to resolve contentious issues in hopes of avoiding a reprise of the two-decade civil war that ended five years ago.
"I don't see that the north has to reinvade the south and start the war again," Gration said. "If we can resolve these issues, I think there is a fairly good chance that ... the south can have a civil divorce, not a civil war."
Sudan's north-south civil war claimed 2 million lives and drove more than 4 million from their homes, destabilizing much of East Africa. It was fought over issues of ethnicity, ideology, religion and oil, all of which still fester.
Gration said next month's elections, even if flawed, would mark a step toward establishing a democratic framework of voter rolls, electoral authorities and monitors that will underpin political decision-making.
"It is important that the election takes place on time, and is done in a way that the people themselves see as credible," Gration told Reuters in an interview.
"What we are trying to do is get as much done as we can now and then make adjustments that we need to."
Accusations of fraud have mounted before the vote, Sudan's first multiparty election in more than two decades, and many opposition parties have called for a delay, saying more democratic reforms are needed.
The only long-term international observer mission in Sudan, the Carter Center, has said the election remains "at risk on multiple fronts" and urged Sudan to lift harsh restrictions on rallies and end fighting in Darfur before the ballot.
Gration, named U.S. special envoy for Sudan last year, has sought to ease tensions that threaten the fragile 2005 peace deal between Khartoum and the semi-autonomous south.
That agreement called for both the elections and the referendum on secession for southern Sudan, which many analysts say could trigger new conflict.
Gration said Washington was already factoring in projections the south will secede.
"Looking at the realities on the ground, it is highly likely that the south will chose independence," Gration said.
He added Washington was "looking at all options" on how it might support a future independent South Sudan, but was focused for now on trying to ensure a peaceful transition.
Gration said the issues being addressed included the question of citizenship, border demarcation and how to apportion profits from Sudan's oil wealth, much of which is pumped in the south but shipped out through the north.
"It is a win-win situation that we are trying to get," Gration said.
He added that would be hard to achieve unless the Khartoum government was willing to discuss better deals for the south as well as for Darfur and other restive parts of the country -- something he said was starting to happen.
"While the progress is slow, we are making it," he said.