WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will drop Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as July 2011 if Khartoum ensures two key referendums take place on schedule in January and the results are respected, senior U.S. officials said Sunday.
President Barack Obama made the offer through Senator John Kerry, who recently told Sudan’s leaders the United States was ready to “decouple” the issue of Darfur from Khartoum’s terror designation to win cooperation on the January polls, the officials said.
“We like to consider this a pay-for-performance operation,” one official said.
The U.S. officials, speaking on background about Kerry’s mission to the region, emphasized that separate U.S. sanctions imposed on Sudan over Darfur would remain until Khartoum makes progress in resolving the humanitarian situation in its troubled western region.
But they also held out hope that the offer to end the isolation imposed on Khartoum by its inclusion on the U.S. state terror list would persuade the Sudanese government to begin making the necessary concessions to allow the January votes to proceed as scheduled.
Sudan’s two parallel referendums on January 9 could see southern Sudan secede to become Africa’s newest state and decide whether the disputed oil-rich territory of Abyei joins the north or the south.
The plebiscites were promised under a 2005 peace deal which ended Sudan’s long civil war. But preparations are badly behind schedule and the two sides continue to disagree on Abyei, raising fears the region could tip back into violence if the votes are mishandled.
The United States, which has stepped up its diplomacy in Sudan, wants to see the votes occur peacefully and all related issues, including deals on future citizenship and the sharing of oil revenues, resolved soon.
Kerry, the powerful Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made two trips to Sudan in recent weeks and carried Obama’s latest offer to Khartoum this past weekend, the officials said.
The U.S. State Department added Sudan to its state terror list in 1993, accusing Khartoum of harboring local and international militants including for a time al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Sudan is one of four countries on the list along with Cuba, Iran and Syria. The designation carries sanctions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales and a raft of restrictions on financial and other dealings.
Officials say Khartoum has been pushing hard for the United States to remove it from the list, as Washington did in prior years with both North Korea and Libya.
Obama’s offer moves up by at least six months the date by which Khartoum might come off the list. But the U.S. officials emphasized a final decision would still be contingent on Sudan halting all sponsorship of terrorism for at least six months before the July 2011 target date and pledging not to resume such assistance in the future.
Separate U.S. sanctions imposed over Darfur — which Obama extended for another year on November 1 — would remain until Khartoum improved conditions in the region, where the United Nations estimates up to 300,000 people died following a revolt in 2003, they said.
“Those ... sanctions remain in place and they are the ones that have a significant effect on Sudan’s economy and on the government of Sudan itself,” said another official, who added that future steps such as debt relief and an exchange of ambassadors would all depend upon progress in Darfur.
The officials said the United States would continue to press for a deal on Abyei in talks under the mediation of former South African President Thabo Mbeki, which have thus far failed to show progress.
“We still believe that there’s time to have an on-time referendum on Abyei, but we recognize that time is of the essence here,” the first official said.
Editing by Todd Eastham