WASHINGTON The Obama administration took steps on Friday to lift a 20-year trade embargo against Sudan, unfreeze assets and remove financial sanctions in response to the east African nation's cooperation in fighting Islamic State and other groups, a move that angered human rights organizations.
The lifting of the sanctions, which date back to the Clinton administration, will however be delayed by 180 days to encourage Sudan to take further actions on improving human rights, resolving political divisions and military conflicts.
That leaves the final decision up to President-elect Donald Trump to implement the sanctions relief, a senior Obama administration official said.
"Sudan has long expressed a desire to get out from under sanctions, as well as other restrictions that the United States has imposed on Sudan going back 20 years," the official said.
"Over the past two years we have looked for a way to engage with Sudan in a way we could overcome some of the lack of trust of the past," the official added.
Trump's transition team has been briefed on the move, the official said, adding that the measures do not affect Sudan's label as a state sponsor of terrorism nor does it impact sanctions tied to Khartoum's role in the Darfur conflict.
"We have briefed the transition team and provided information about this. We can't speak to their intentions or what they intend to do next," the official said.
The sanctions relief is expected to impact businesses that deal with agriculture, import-export services, transportation, technology and medical equipment, and oil, the official said.
Sudan's foreign ministry welcomed the move, calling it an "important positive development in bilateral relations between Sudan and the United States."
The ministry said it hoped further cooperation would allow Sudan to be removed from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism.
The United States first imposed sanctions on Sudan in 1997, including a trade embargo and blocking the government's assets, for human rights violations and terrorism concerns. The United States layered on more sanctions in 2006 for what it said was complicity in the violence in Sudan's Darfur region.
In a letter to Congress, U.S. President Barack Obama said "actions of the government of Sudan has been altered by Sudan's positive actions over the past six months."
There were signs last year of a thaw in relations between Sudan and the United States, which accuses Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of war crimes related to the conflict-torn Darfur region.
On Sept. 20, the State Department welcomed efforts by Sudan to increase counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States. Sudan had taken steps to counter Islamic State and "other terrorist groups and has sought to prevent their movement into and through Sudan," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement at the time.
The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest for Bashir for war crimes and genocide related to Darfur, charges he dismisses.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government, accusing it of discrimination. The U.N. says up to 300,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in Darfur.
The Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide group, called the lifting of sanctions "premature" and said any easing of pressure on Sudan should be in exchange for resolving conflicts in Darfur and in South Kordofan, and ensuring humanitarian access to those affected by government military blockades.
"We will certainly seek to work with the U.S. Congress to see some of these sanctions restored, modernized, and codified in the coming months," said John Prendergast, director of the Enough Project.
Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, called the decision "inexplicable" and said there had been no progress on human rights.
"Sudan's government has failed to make progress on core benchmarks, from its ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur and other conflict zones, to its extensive repression of independent voices," Lefkow said.
"Instead of using its leverage to press for real reforms that would benefit Sudanese citizens, the Obama administration is sending the worst possible message to Sudan and other repressive governments," Lefkow added.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Susan Heavey; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Andrew Hay)