The situation in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan was on the agenda when President Bush met Monday with NATO Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer. Mr. Bush wants the alliance to provide support for a proposed U.N. peacekeeping force.
NATO's secretary-general said the alliance is willing and able to help the U.N. in Darfur. "I am quite sure, as I told the president, that when the U.N. comes, the NATO allies will be ready to do more in enabling the United Nations force in Darfur," he said.
The White House has been pressing NATO, which already provides some limited support for African Union forces in Darfur, to play a greater role when the AU transfers peacekeeping duties to the United Nations.
That transfer is still in flux, and the NATO leader did not mention specific steps the alliance might take to back-up the U.N. All the same, the secretary-general's words were welcomed by President Bush, who told reporters that during a telephone conversation earlier this year he urged NATO to take a lead role in Dafur.
"The first time I made the phone call to the secretary-general, he fully understood the challenge, fully understood the need," said President Bush, "and it was great to work with a friend in peace to devise a strategy on how to move forward."
The president went on to caution that a great deal must happen before the U.N. moves into Darfur. He said the African Union still must formally request a transfer of peacekeeping responsibilities. "If that is done, NATO can move in with United States' help - inside of NATO - to make it clear to the Sudanese government that we are intent upon providing security for the people there, and intent upon helping work toward a lasting peace agreement."
The fighting in Darfur has been going on for three years, involving rebels, government forces and government-backed militias. The United Nations calls it the world's greatest humanitarian crisis, and estimates that 200,000 people have died in the fighting and two million others have been displaced.