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Sudan falters as US House rethinks aid

Peacekeepers in the Darfur region, already challenged in carrying out duties, face funding cuts.

A year ago, the House of Representatives passed a resolution inviting the United States to call the violence in Sudan's Darfur region "by its rightful name: genocide."

President Bush complied, and international action was taken to stop militia violence against Darfur's black African minority, including deployment of an African Union peacekeeping force.

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But earlier this month a House committee - in a budget-cutting mode and amid what Darfur experts say is a mistaken sense that violence in the traumatized region has been quelled - voted to trim the $50 million that lawmakers had approved earlier in the year for the African Union force.

Some experts haven't minced words. "Congress should be ashamed of itself," says Jonathan Morganstein, a Marine reserve officer with peacekeeping experience who co-wrote a new report on Darfur by Refugees International. Citing the now-famous case of pork-barrel funding for "bridges to nowhere" in recent transportation appropriations, he adds, "For less than 15 percent of [the bridges' cost] we can help stave off this genocide."

The Refugees International report finds after recent on-the-ground investigations that the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) is losing control because of a weak mandate, poor equipment, and woefully inadequate troop numbers. And it's facing increased attacks itself. The report concludes that the situation for Darfur's uprooted and besieged population is deteriorating once again.

AMIS "is failing," says Sally Chin, the report's coauthor. Donors like the US are neglecting their pledges to fund and provision the force, she says, and as a result, humanitarian groups are being forced to abandon their work for security reasons.

"The situation is getting much worse," says Ms. Chin. She notes that displacements are rising again - one-third of the population of 6 million is already uprooted - and that whole sections of the population are cut off from international aid and surveillance. This is especially true since AMIS has not reached its intended level of 12,500 troops.

The situation did appear to improve early in the summer, Mr. Morganstein says, which may explain why international attention has trailed off - including from the US Congress.

Last year's congressional action was taken after Darfur became a featured cause of conservative Christian groups concerned about "persecution" of one of Africa's largest Christian minority populations. Human rights activist Elie Wiesel called Darfur "the world capital of suffering."

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The Refugees International report says more pressure and action are needed by both the US and the United Nations.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was in Nairobi, Kenya, last week to convene talks among Darfur antigovernment rebels. But the result was more a picture of the level of discord among feuding factions than a move toward unity against the government in Khartoum.

Peace talks on the Darfur conflict are supposed to resume in Nigeria next Sunday, but the infighting among rebel groups does not bode well for the negotiations, US officials say.

The poor prospects for peace make measures to safeguard the Darfur population only more urgent, humanitarian aid groups say.

According to Morganstein, AMIS is trying to accomplish what UN peacekeeping missions did in Bosnia and Kosovo - only with fewer soldiers protecting a larger population over a much larger territory. AMIS currently has fewer than 5,000 soldiers to cover an area the size of Texas.

"No one would seriously suggest that 5,000 police officers could maintain security in Texas," Morganstein says - not to mention, he adds, that Darfur is living under an uneasy cease-fire.