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Taking charge in Cairo and Keeping watch in Khartoum

Khartoum!m It's a city that has resonated in the imagination of Europeans and Americans more than the country of which it is the capital -- Sudan. Now suddenly they are being brought face to face with the gritty, unromantic problems of a land with the storied pst of General Gordon, Lord Kitchener, and the rest. People were no doubt glad to be assured by President Reagan this week that US troops will never be used in Sudan. But how did things reach a point where this even became an issue?

It became an issue with US promises of expedited military aid to Sudan for defense against possible encroachments by Libya through Chad, where Libya's reckless Colonel Qaddafi is already adventuring. These promises came forth when the assassination of President Sadat drew attention to Egypt's many hostile neighbors and most conspicuous friend -- Sudan. "One future, one destiny," said Sudan's President Nimeiry, standing shoulder to shoulder with Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, at the latter's swearing-in. Egypt had already sent forces to Sudan under a mutual defense treaty.

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Washington's entirely appropriate show of support for Egypt the Mideast peacemaker reasonably extends to its Sudanese ally. A senior US defense official reportedly said that the AWACS surveillance planes being sent to Egypt might be used in Sudanese air space. Without getting into the kind of guarantees of internal security Mr. Reagan offered Saudi Arabia, the US could be expected not to stand idly by if Libya were to threaten Sudan's stability from the outside.

Yet, for all of Qaddafi's menance, the stability of Africa's largest country seems more threatened by domestic political and economic strains. The reported taking of thousands of political prisoners is more a symptom than a solution. The decline of agricultural production testifies to problems of adjustment to modern methods not necessarily the best for Sudan's circumstances.

To reduce the invitation to those who would exploit the situation -- and there are many besides Qaddafi since Sudan turned westward from Moscow several years ago -- the country needs economic support more than, or at least along with, military hardware. This support ought to come from international institutions and Sudan's oil-rich fellow Islamic states as well as the United States. But here is an excellent opportunity for Mr. Reagan to build on the fine US aid record he just been praising and demonstrate how his stress on private sector involvement can bolster the aid's effectiveness.

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