WASHINGTON AND NAIROBI, KENYA — After years of worldwide outrage over suffering in Darfur, the Obama administration will soon launch a new policy that could soften some longtime U.S. sanctions against the Sudanese government implicated in the large-scale killings and displacement of African tribespeople.
White House officials say that specific conditions would have to be met before sanctions would be lifted, and that Sudan could face even tougher sanctions if its leaders act in bad faith. But President Obama's handpicked envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, said in an interview Monday that the Khartoum government, which expelled humanitarian groups this year after an international court accused Sudan's president of war crimes in Darfur, has shown a willingness to work toward stabilizing Darfur in order to allow aid to be delivered.
"We see that there is a spirit of cooperation and an attitude of wanting to help," Gration said.
The American envoy acknowledged that lifting sanctions could help bolster the Sudanese government, but he said the new policy would be prudent and cautious.
"There's ways that we can roll back these sanctions in a way that allows us to lift the restrictions we need, such that the government continues to be sanctioned and military equipment continues to be sanctioned," he said.
The new approach has sparked fierce debate among Obama's advisors and is causing consternation among some of his strongest supporters, who had expected the president to toughen U.S. policy toward a government that he had sharply criticized as untrustworthy during last year's presidential campaign.
Broad restrictions were enacted by the Clinton administration 12 years ago against the Islamist-led regime in response to Khartoum's alleged harboring of terrorists such as Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and to the oppression of Christians and other minorities as part of Sudan's civil war.
U.S. foreign aid and almost all commercial ties are severely restricted.
Even floating the idea of lifting some sanctions -- something the Bush administration also contemplated -- is politically controversial.
Darfur has for years unified an unusual and vocal coalition of Hollywood stars, human rights activists, African Americans and evangelicals. As candidates last year, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton all vowed to maintain a hard line with Khartoum.
Obama's United Nations ambassador, Susan Rice, who as an advisor to the Clinton administration helped draft the sanctions, has argued for a tougher stance, declaring that genocide continues in Darfur.
Supporters of the more cooperative approach, such as Gration, argue that deaths have declined in Darfur and that U.S. sanctions are hurting efforts to build roads and other projects in southern Sudan that need to be in place by 2011. That is the year the region is expected to vote to secede from the country in a referendum that is a key component of a 2005 U.S.-brokered peace treaty that ended Sudan's 21-year civil war.
Gration cited as evidence of Khartoum's new cooperation the government's willingness to ease its stance against several international humanitarian organizations that had been forced to leave the country and accused of spying after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir in March.
Nearly a dozen aid groups were kicked out, but now several others have been granted entry -- though critics note that the initial banning has hampered delivery of aid.
The new White House policy is not likely to be announced for several weeks, but in interviews and congressional testimony, administration officials have begun to sketch it out.
They say the new policy would not contradict the president's campaign promises -- and would result in tougher restrictions if Khartoum failed to adhere to promises.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity while discussing internal policy deliberations, said any possible incentives would be presented as part of a package to entice the Sudanese regime to bring peace to Darfur and abide by the terms of the 2005 peace accord.
The International Criminal Court estimates that about 35,000 people have been killed by government troops and allied militias in the six-year war in Darfur against rebellious tribes. At least 100,000 more have died from disease and starvation, the ICC says.
The Obama policy will outline "what sort of steps we'd be prepared to take that would be attractive to the government of Sudan in response to changed conditions on the ground," the White House official said.
The official said the new approach would be contingent upon concrete action by the Khartoum regime to stabilize security nationwide and end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.