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Obama extends sanctions against Sudan

New policy encourages dialogue but presses for change.

"We will employ calibrated incentives as appropriate and exert real pressure as needed on any party that fails to act to improve the lives of the people of Sudan," Clinton said. "There will be no rewards for the status quo, no incentives without concrete and tangible progress. There will be significant consequences for parties that backslide or simply stand still."

Exactly what form those consequences might take — or what kind of incentives might be offered — was not revealed, but the respected newsletter Africa Confidential reports that the pressure will "include military intervention ... the one external threat the NCP really fears."

Sudan is a difficult but necessary state to deal with. It is run by a militant Islamist government headed by Omar al Bashir, an iron-fisted president who took power in a coup 20 years ago and is in no hurry to relinquish control. Bashir is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and U.S. diplomats openly accuse him of orchestrating genocide in Darfur.

Announcing the new Sudan policy, Clinton used the word "genocide" five times, something sure to anger the touchy apparatchiks in Khartoum, and stated that while talking to the regime, U.S. diplomats would not be talking directly to Bashir.

But for all the outside pressure that the U.S. might bring to bear, the real stumbling blocks are likely to be found within Sudan's domestic political, ethnic and religious make-up.

The power-sharing Government of National Unity does not live up to its name and is increasingly fractious. This week southern ministers walked out of parliament to protest Bashir's refusal to reform the intelligence services upon which he relies so heavily.

In discussions with the U.S., Sudan's point man is a northern doctor-cum-tank commander, not the foreign minister, who is a southerner. Even the recent case of a female journalist arrested in Khartoum for wearing trousers deemed indecent by the regime's morality police was an excuse for southern politicians to score political points against its enemy in government.

Meanwhile in Darfur the basic level of trust needed for any peace talks to succeed is sorely lacking, both among the fragmented rebels themselves and between them and Khartoum.

With this new policy Obama has signaled his intent to talk to Sudan's government in the hope of bringing about peace and stability in one of the continent's anchor-states. The Bush administration proved that refusing to deal with the likes of Bashir does not bring about
results, but Obama might find opening discussions with the Sudanese regime, hated by many U.S. activists, may not play well with his supporters.