U.S. officials say implementing the Darfur peace agreement requires sustained international attention to Sudan in coming months. A congressional hearing examined prospects for peace in the Darfur region.

Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer was part of the intense U.S. diplomacy that helped clinch a peace agreement for Sudan's Darfur region earlier this month.

She calls the accord an important step toward a peaceful, democratic and secure future for the people of Darfur. But she says its effectiveness will depend, among other things, on a strong mandate for a future United Nations force, allowing it to protect people at risk of attack.

"With the U.N. we will have the ability to increase the [protection] capability quickly," said Jendayi Frazer. "All of the past Security Council resolutions on Sudan have been under Chapter 7, and Resolution 16-79 is also a Chapter 7 that would give that robust mandate to protect civilians. That would be the intent of [the] U.N. peacekeeping mission there."

Earlier this week, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 16-79 urging Sudan to allow preparations for a U.N. peackeeping force. It is legally binding under Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter.

Protecting civilians is a concern shared by Republican Congressman Chris Smith, who chaired Thursday's hearing of the House International Relations Committee:

"An enhanced mandate to protect," said Chris Smith. "That is the number one issue we heard over and over again, that the individuals, the civilians, be protected."

As the Darfur peace accord plays out, other lawmakers worry about its fragility, recalling experiences from the painstakingly achieved the North-South Sudan peace agreement.

Congressman Ed Royce:

"We have to be thinking about the repercussions for non-compliance with the terms of the Darfur peace agreement," said Congressman Royce. "And we have to think about who is going to be the guarantor, and what enforcement mechanisms will the guarantor have at its disposal."

In separate testimony, Lloyd Pierson of the U.S. Agency for International Development, provided an update on the continuing precarious situation on the ground:

"Humanitarian operations in Darfur have been inhibited by ongoing violence and government obstructionism," said Lloyd Pierson. "Factional fighting, banditry and lawlessness all put the flow of assistance in jeopardy, and humanitarian organizations are increasingly targets of attacks."

Assistant Secretary Frazer says that, in the wake of the recent positive U.N. Security Council resolution, the U.S. hopes for fairly quick movement, possibly within six months, toward putting a U.N. peackeeping force on the ground, with short-term help from what she calls NATO enablers.

The Bush administration, she adds, remains committed to providing food and other assistance, as steps proceed toward establishing a robust U.N. peackeeping operation to protect civilians, and allow displaced persons to return home.

The Darfur agreement requires the government of Sudan to present a plan for disarming Arab militia known as janjaweed, leading to complete verifiable disarmament by next October.

Frazer sought to make clear the janjaweed will not be part of the plan to integrate Darfur rebel forces into Sudanese forces.