KHARTOUM, SUDAN — The American presidential race and a genocide investigation by the International Criminal Court are propelling Sudanese officials to renew efforts to strike a deal with the U.S. aimed at normalizing relations and improving stability in the volatile Darfur region.
Many in the Khartoum government fear frosty U.S.-Sudanese relations could worsen under the next U.S. president.
Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, has called for American military intervention in Darfur. Other members of the foreign policy team assembled by presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama are former hawks from the Clinton administration, which lobbed cruise missiles at Khartoum in 1998 after labeling the regime a state sponsor of terrorism.
"We want to do something with the Bush administration before they leave," said Sudan's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ali Sadiq. "Our experience with the Democrats has been bitter."
Prospects under Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, don't appear much better, Sudanese officials say. McCain's key Africa advisor once dismissed leaders here as "thugs," and McCain has called Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir a liar.
Richard Williamson, the U.S. envoy to Sudan, who reopened talks last month, is scheduled to resume direct negotiations in mid-September, Sudanese officials said.
Under discussion is a proposed agreement by the U.S. to not fight Sudan's bid to postpone an impending ICC arrest warrant for Bashir, officials said.
In return, Khartoum would agree to concessions, including accelerated deployment of United Nations peacekeepers, increased anti-terrorism cooperation and improved humanitarian assistance for the western region of Darfur.
Negotiations broke down this summer amid renewed bloodshed and outrage from Darfur advocacy groups and Democrats over the Bush administration's overtures toward Sudan.
"This reckless and cynical initiative would reward a regime in Khartoum that has a record of failing to live up to its commitments," Obama said in April.
The momentum for renewed talks grew in July after the ICC's prosecutor announced that he would seek an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges of genocide.
ICC judges are expected to rule on the request in the coming months, but the Sudanese government has launched a vigorous campaign to press the U.N. Security Council to use its authority to postpone the case. The government argues that an arrest warrant would hinder peace efforts and destabilize Africa's biggest country.
John Prendergast, founder of Enough Project, an anti-genocide advocacy group, said the ICC case strengthened the U.S. negotiating position.
"This gives the U.S. unprecedented leverage," he said. "The U.S. has the chance to do something constructive in the dying days of this administration."
Bush administration officials have been approaching with caution, fearing that further public backlash might hurt McCain's campaign. They've urged Sudanese officials to make bold gestures and demonstrate a commitment to reform so that any deal will be acceptable to the American public and Congress.
There have been mixed signals from Sudan. During a visit to Darfur in July, Bashir announced the creation of a presidential commission to tackle the region's problems, and he appointed a Sudanese prosecutor to investigate ICC allegations.
But it's unclear whether such steps will yield results before the ICC reaches a decision on the arrest warrant or before the issue comes up before the U.N., both of which could occur as early as October. Mistrust is apparent on both sides.
Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. special envoy to Sudan, said any deal with Khartoum would face strong opposition in the U.S. and that it was unlikely one would be reached before the presidential election in November. "Politically, in Washington, it's untenable," he said.
Sudan also accuses the U.S. of reneging on promises to lift sanctions and remove the terrorism designation, even after Khartoum met agreed-upon benchmarks.
"We are very interested in normalizing relations with the U.S.," said Nafie Ali Nafie, a top presidential advisor who is leading Sudan's negotiating team. "But if people believe we are cornered, we won't do it."