U.S. diplomats say they are pleased with the course of Sudan's ongoing referendum on independence for the south. And, if the Sudanese government embraces the results as it has pledged to and meets other criteria, diplomats say Sudan could be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism by the middle of this year.
The country is one of four nations that the United States lists as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1993 alongside Iran, Cuba and Syria.
The designation imposes restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, among other sanctions.
But Sudan might find itself off that list soon.
Ambassador Princeton Lyman, who is part of the Sudan Negotiation Support Unit, discussed the process with reporters at the State Department Tuesday. "I think the first step would be on completion of the referendum and the acceptance of the results, that the United States will begin the process of examining removal from the state sponsors of terrorism. That involves certain reviews and certain consultations with Congress, but that would begin after acceptance of the referendum results," he said.
Lyman said Sudan could be formally removed from that list - and be closer to normalized ties - around July of this year, as other elements of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) are achieved.
The ongoing poll in southern Sudan is one of the requirements of the CPA, which ended 21 years of civil war in the nation. Lyman said other CPA requirements, such as a referendum to determine if Abeyi should be part of the north or the south, must be satisfied.
Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who briefed reporters alongside Lyman, cautioned that nothing is certain. "Even though we have clearly indicated a willingness to remove Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list if the CPA is fully implemented, Sudan must also comply with the criteria under the law for the removal of this state-sponsor designation," he said.
He said this means Sudan's government cannot aid, abet or support international terrorist groups.
As for the current referendum, Lyman praised the Sudanese people for their willingness to contemplate splitting their nation in two, and both he and Carson said they were pleased with the government's handling of the poll thus far.
Still, Lyman said, many tough issues have yet to be worked through. "This is one big step, but now the two parties, based on the results of the referendum, have to work out all those post-referendum issues which, frankly, were not addressed very far in the period before. The parties simply were either not ready or not in a position to address them before the referendum. So we have big issues out there to be resolved, and these are going to be tough negotiations," he said.
Lyman said these issues include management of the oil sector and finalization of some disputed borders, as well as security, citizenship, currency and international debt issues. He said committees that operate under the auspices of the African Union have made a lot of progress on legal and security issues, while the economic group lags behind.