The Obama administration, which has negotiated new relationships with states like Cuba, Iran and Myanmar, is now eyeing a rapprochement with Sudan, a nation that has long been designated a state sponsor of terrorism and whose current leader has been indicted on war crimes charges.
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While significant changes in U.S. policy toward Sudan are not likely to happen soon, the State Department on Tuesday welcomed Khartoum's cooperation in fighting Islamic extremist groups. The statement, which was apparently unprompted by any specific development, said Sudan in recent months had taken "important steps" to take on the Islamic State group and other such organizations. It added that the U.S. would work with Sudan on security matters while also pressing it on human rights and democracy issues.
"Sudan's continued cooperation will bolster international efforts to combat terrorism in the broader region," the statement said. "Subject to and consistent with U.S. law, we will work cooperatively with the government of Sudan on counterterrorism to enhance the security of both our countries. While countering terrorism is an important objective for the United States, we continue to engage the government of Sudan on protecting human rights, resolving internal conflicts, addressing humanitarian needs, improving regional stability, and advancing political freedoms, accountability and reconciliation."
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. continues to have grave concerns about Sudanese policies, notably with unrest in its western Darfur region, but that normalizing relations is not out of the question. The State Department designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993. It is one of only three countries still identified as such since Cuba was removed from the list last year. Syria and Iran are the others, although the Obama administration sealed a landmark nuclear deal with Iran last year.
"Complete normalization of relations would require significant progress in a range of other areas," Kirby said. In particular, he noted the need for improvements in conditions in Darfur.
Kirby said the U.S. would begin the process of rescinding the terror-sponsor designation only if Sudan meets the relevant criteria, which include renouncing terrorism and not supporting extremist groups for a six-month period.
"This process has not been initiated," he said. "We have been quite clear with the Sudanese on the steps that need to be taken for us to consider rescission, and what would be required to make progress in easing our economic sanctions, which are distinct from the state sponsor of terrorism listing, and have remained in place, because of the continued conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. These conflicts are continuing today."
Other U.S. officials played down suggestions that President Barack Obama might move to ease sanctions on Sudan before he leaves office in January. They said the State Department statement and Kirby's comments came in response to Sudanese efforts to limit travel of Islamic State militants as well as Khartoum's moves to align less with Iran and more toward Saudi Arabia. Israel has also pressed the U.S. to adopt a more friendly relationship with Sudan, the officials said. Sudan has in the past been a trans-shipment point for suspected Iranian weapons transfers to anti-Israel groups.
However, the officials also noted that any move to improve U.S. ties with Sudan would be complicated by the fact that its president, Omar al-Bashir, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged atrocities in Darfur. The court issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir in 2009 for crimes against humanity and war crimes and added genocide to the charges against him in 2010.
Darfur has been gripped by bloodshed since 2003, when rebels took up arms against the government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination and neglect. The United Nations says 300,000 people have died in the conflict and 2.7 million have fled their homes.