U.S. Played Key Role in Southern Sudan's Long Journey to Independence

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Twenty years of U.S. involvement contributed to today's secession of Southern Sudan - but peace is yet to come

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George W. Bush meets with First Vice President of Sudan and President of Southern Sudan Salva Kiir, January 5, 2009 / Reuters

Today marks the birth of the world's newest nation. The Republic of South Sudan has gained its independence from Sudan after decades of bloody civil war, and southern Sudanese around the world are celebrating. So too are their allies. And there are few outside Sudan who are likely to be more pleased than a tight group of U.S. Congressional representatives who have sustained their efforts on Sudan for over two decades.

This bipartisan coalition, known in recent years as the Sudan Caucus, has pushed three successive U.S. presidents to make Sudan a foreign policy priority. "It's a great day," co-founder of the Sudan Caucus, Democratic Congressman Donald Payne, told me. "A victory for the oppressed."

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who is heading the U.S. delegation to the independence celebrations, called the historic occasion "first and foremost a testament to the Southern Sudanese people" as well as to leaders in both Sudan and South Sudan. She added that, in terms of the international community, "the U.S. has been as active as anyone."

According to a U.S. official who is not authorized to speak to the media but has worked on these issues for decades, U.S. attention on Sudan has not been by chance. "Behind all this was [and] still is, a small group of people who have been working behind the scenes for almost 20 years" said the official.

South Sudan's independence follows a January referendum in which 98.8 percent of voters chose to secede from Sudan. The referendum had been promised in a peace agreement that ended the war between the Sudanese government based in the largely Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the mainly Christian and animist south of Sudan. The longest-running conflict in Africa, an estimated two million southern Sudanese lives were lost by the time the war ended in 2005.

Today, while southern Sudanese rejoice, the celebrations are marred by increasingly horrific reports of violence and civilian causalities in Southern Kordofan, on the northern side of the border between the soon-to-be nations of Sudan and South Sudan.

The Sudan Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Payne, along with Republican Congressman Frank Wolf and Democratic Congressman Michael Capuano, was inaugurated in 2005. But its roots stretch back much further.

In 1989, Rep. Wolf traveled into the war-ravaged terrain of southern Sudan to become the first U.S. representative to meet with the head of the southern Sudanese rebels, John Garang. Payne followed a few years later, and on his return to Washington pushed for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution endorsing the right of southern Sudanese to exercise self-determination. Congress subsequently condemned the Sudanese government "for its genocidal war in southern Sudan."

Backing up these congressional efforts was an unlikely activist coalition, formed years before the more high-profile Save Darfur movement. The southern Sudan cause brought evangelicals into alliance with African American, Jewish, and secular activist groups.

U.S. attempts to support the southern Sudanese struggle have been wide-ranging. A report released by the Congressional Research Service last week lists actions going back to the Clinton era, including the provision of more than $20 million surplus U.S. military equipment to frontline states of Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, which the report says "helped reverse military gains made by the [Sudanese] government" against the southern rebels. Further pressure on the Sudanese government came with the 1993 designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terror, and the 1997 imposition of comprehensive economic sanctions, which prevented U.S. companies from operating in Sudan.

On the eve of South Sudan independence, former National Security Council Africa Director John Prendergast, who today leads much of the U.S. activism on Sudan, told me he felt "major regret that we couldn't help get this done in the mid to late 1990s when I worked for the Clinton administration."

Instead, U.S. support for southern Sudanese self-determination gained momentum under the presidency of George W. Bush. His aides said the former president, pressed by evangelical activists, viewed ending the civil war in Sudan as a "legacy item" for his foreign policy. Bush appointed a special envoy to focus on peace negotiations, which finally bore fruit in 2005.

Celebrations of the 2005 peace agreement were dampened, however, by ongoing conflict in Sudan's western region of Darfur. In 2003, the Sudanese government launched a brutal military campaign to crush an insurgency by Darfuri rebels, mostly non-Arab and Muslim. In the summer of 2004, the same group of Congressional representatives who had long supported southern Sudan passed a resolution condemning the Darfur violence as genocide.

Supported once again by an improbable coalition of religious and secular activists, this time under the banner of the Save Darfur movement, these same members of Congress eventually passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act. The legislation prevented the White House from rewarding the Sudanese government for signing the agreement with the southern rebels until the situation in Darfur was resolved.

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