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US Optimistic Final Sudan Peace Accord Can Be Reached Soon - 2003-10-01

The Bush administration is expressing optimism that a final peace accord ending Sudan's two-decade-long civil war could be in reach by late this month or early November. A U.S. military expert is heading to the region Thursday to try to help the Khartoum government and southern rebels conclude a deal merging their armed forces.

A senior State Department official says a final Sudanese peace accord is 80 percent complete and says the negotiating process could be wrapped up at the next session of Kenyan-brokered talks opening near Nairobi next Monday.

The Islamic government in Khartoum and the mainly-Christian and animist rebel movement in southern Sudan have been engaged in negotiations for nearly two years aimed at ending a conflict that begin in 1983 and has killed an estimated two million people in combat and war-related famine.

The senior U.S. official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the security deal signed by the parties last week means they have overcome the most intractable issues of the peace process and the remaining questions involving power and revenue-sharing could be settled "in a couple of weeks."

Under the security accord reached in Kenya, the sides agreed in principle to merge their forces into new integrated military units.

The United States, which has actively supported the peace process, is dispatching a team headed by retired U.S. Marine General Carl Fulford to the area Thursday to help the two sides work out the fine points of the new security arrangements.

The senior official said the parties already have verbal agreements on some of the key points for dividing government powers and the country's oil wealth, and that the task at the next, and potentially concluding round, is to put those accords in writing.

He said Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir Tuesday to congratulate him on the security pact and to encourage him to take the remaining steps to peace.

He also said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner is in "almost daily" contact with the two main participants in the talks, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and John Garang, head of the southern rebel movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Army or SPLA.

The senior official said a final peace accord would alter the landscape of U.S.-Sudanese relations in a positive way after years of strain stemming from, among other things, the Khartoum government's past links to terrorist groups.

The official said such connections are now "minimal" and that Sudan has provided full cooperation with U.S. anti-terrorist efforts since the 9-11 attacks in 2001.

He said the U.S. diplomatic mission in Khartoum, now run by a charge d'affaires, could be elevated to ambassadorial level after a full peace agreement and that the Bush administration would examine the possibility of removing the several layers of U.S. sanctions against Sudan.

Sudan remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and is also the subject of U.S. sanctions for its poor human rights record including the practice of slavery in some parts of the country.