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US options in Darfur limited, Congressman says

by Jordan Green

Members of a US congressional delegation led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had reservations about meeting President Omar al-Bashir during a visit in the first week of April to Sudan, an African nation whose aspirations to join the Persian Gulf states as a major oil producer have been overshadowed by a genocide in Darfur, a region the size of France, that has taken the lives of an estimated 400,000 to 450,000 people.

“Bashir himself snubbed us,” said Rep. Brad Miller, a Democrat who represents North Carolina’s 13th district, speaking to a group of students and faculty at UNCG on April 10. “A lot of us were grinding our teeth at the idea of meeting someone who we regard as a repulsive monster.”

Miller said he is frustrated that Bashir’s government has hampered international humanitarian groups from gaining full access to the internally displaced persons’ camps where 2 to 2.5 million refugees live. For that reason, he suggested, it’s difficult to get a true picture of how current atrocities are unfolding.

“What is going on in Darfur is probably not what was going on in 2002 and 2003 when there was unquestionably a genocide, when the government funded the [paramilitary] Janjaweed,” he said. “It’s probably now more tribal violence. There’s different sets of the rebel groups that refuse to sign the Darfur peace agreement.”

A low-level government representative dispatched to meet the delegation on Bashir’s behalf seemed to play on that confusion.

“It’s basically tribal violence,” Miller said of the message the delegation received. “We want to stop it too. Give us the resources and we’ll do it.”

The US lawmakers walked away from the meeting unimpressed.

Members of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur who spoke with Miller contested some of the congressman’s assertions while crediting him for supporting their activism.

“I guess we were discouraged by the bleakness of his outlook on the situation and the insinuation that the US can’t do anything about it,” said senior Katie Mariategui. In contrast to Miller, Mariategui and other STAND members believe the Sudanese air force currently plays a significant role in enabling the Janjaweed to carry out killings. She spoke in favor an internationally enforced no-fly zone over Darfur.

“It would effectively impede the Sudanese government, because they operate in a very calculated manner,” Mariategui said. “By putting a no-fly zone in it would really weaken the strength of the Sudanese government. The Janjaweed are directly controlled by the Sudanese government. They are given a financial inducement.”

Miller indicated that he feels frustrated that the United States’ lack of options, pointing out that US sanctions are already in effect against Sudan, but the United Nations Security Council has been unwilling to take action because of member state China’s thirst for Sudanese oil.

“What is our point of leverage?” he asked. “I really don’t want to send our military in. We did make a promise that we would never let genocide happen again, which has broken repeatedly in the past sixty years…. I want to stop it. What do we do?”

A member of the new Democratic majority in Congress, Miller said he believes the United States squandered its moral authority in the world with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, thus forfeiting an opportunity to provide foreign policy leadership on the matter of Darfur. The United States’ refusal to sign on to the Kyoto Accords to reduce carbon dioxide emissions also has implications for Darfur, he suggested.

“When you fly over Darfur you can’t quite believe people live there,” he said. “There are seven million people living there. The population of Darfur is about twice as many as it was a generation ago. There are about three times as many animals. The Sahara [Desert] is creeping southward…. It’s primarily a fight for resources. They’ve got two-thirds the water they had. It’s a fight over who gets control over what watering holes.”

Miller discounted the possibility of unilateral military action against Sudan, a largely Muslim and Arab country, because the precedent set by the US occupation of Iraq could increase resentment and hostility. Following the delegation’s visit to Sudan, they traveled to Egypt to consult with President Hosni Mubarak.

“My sense is that things would go more smoothly if the UN force were primarily Arab and Muslim,” Miller said. “As a practical matter, there have to be some European troops. Because of historical disputes between Egypt and the Sudan, Mubarak thought it would incite resentment among some of the Sudanese to have Egyptians come in.”

Miller hinted that he’ll be involved in a legislative effort to address the crisis in Darfur, but declined to provide details.

“If we’re going to act militarily, I think it has to be multilateral,” he said. “If we had more moral authority in the world I think we could shame the EU into taking more action…. We’re about to do more than we’re doing, but I’m not sure that will bring a massive change.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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