Sudan vote tests Obama's Africa diplomacy

Wed Jan 5, 2011 5:39am GMT

By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - South Sudan's independence referendum on Sunday marks the start of a new test for U.S. diplomacy in the region, which analysts say could yet present President Barack Obama with his "Rwanda moment" if violence explodes in its wake.

U.S. officials are cautiously optimistic about the vote, which is expected to see southern Sudan opt to split off as an independent country in the last step of a 2005 peace deal that ended one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars.

"The six months after the referendum are the most dangerous," said John Prendergast of the anti-genocide Enough Project who in July warned that Obama faced a "Rwanda moment" similar to that confronted by former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton has said his main regret as president was failing to prevent the slaughter of 800,000 people in that conflict.

In Sudan, a credible referendum would be welcome news in Washington, which has ramped up pressure in recent months, seeking to head off hostilities between the central government in Khartoum and south Sudanese leaders in Juba.

But officials are less confident about the next phase, a tricky six-month transition as the two countries separate, and how Washington can help to ensure peace between two sides long divided by religion, ethnicity, ideology and oil revenues.

Crucial issues including borders, citizenship, and division of Sudan's oil revenues are yet to be decided, any of which could trigger bloodshed that some warn might potentially rival the 1994 genocide in Rwanda if it expands into full-blown war.

"The U.S. will play a major role in whatever the outcome is. With intelligent, principled policies, along with personal engagement, President Obama can help make the difference between war and peace in Sudan," Prendergast said.   Continued...

<p>U.S. President Barack Obama talks about health care during an online town hall meeting at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia, July 1, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing</p>
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