International diplomats have welcomed the signing of a 'goodwill' agreement between the Sudanese government and a Darfur rebel faction as a first step towards further negotiations.  But observers remain skeptical the deal indicates any real improvement for the prospects of a peace settlement. 

The document signed Tuesday in Doha, Qatar, by representatives of Sudan's government and the Justice and Equality Movement, the most powerful rebel group operating in Sudan's Darfur region, is not a peace agreement or a cease-fire.

The so-called 'Agreement of Good Will and Confidence Building for the Settlement of the Problem in Darfur' calls for steps to facilitate the re-settlement of civilians displaced by the six-year conflict in Darfur and to improve access for humanitarian organizations.  The sides also agreed, in principal, on an exchange of prisoners, though the details have not been worked out, and on a return to further negotiations.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the agreement a "constructive step."  The U.S. State Department described it as a "tangible first step."  Diplomats from Britain, China, and Japan - the current head of the U.N. Security Council - also welcomed the deal. 

Given the lack of existing peace negotiations, any indication of discussions can be seen as a positive development.  But many observers question the significance of the agreement, wondering whether the two sides are making a genuine attempt at a resolution of the conflict or simply using the occasion to extract beneficial concessions from the other side.

Many see the agreement as an opportunity for the Sudanese government to strengthen its claim that an expected arrest warrant for Sudan's president by the International Criminal Court would threaten peace efforts.

Until now, supporters of a warrant could simply reply by pointing out that there were no peace efforts to speak of.  The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said that the agreement should have no impact on the ICC case. 

The Justice and Equality Movement is interested in securing the release of its members in government detention, many sentenced to death after being captured during a raid by the rebels on the capital last year.  Among those detained is the half-brother of the group's leader, Khalil Ibrahim.

Paula Roque, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, also points out the group wants to improve its standing among rebels.

"Justice and Equality Movement want to solidify their position as the prime rebel movement in Darfur and want to have that stamp in terms of sitting at the negotiating table with Khartoum," she said.

Roque suggests the absence of other factions seriously hampers prospects for the Qatar talks.

"Unfortunately the preclusion of other rebel factions in Darfur is a fault in these talks.  I think any peace agreement that will result in cessation of hostilities and other provisions to address the root causes of why the rebellion began in 2003, will have to be more inclusive.  It will have to have the participation of the several rebel factions but also open up to Darfur civil society groupsm," she said.

Sudanese officials have said future negotiations on a peace agreement are planned to be completed within three months.  A next meeting to discuss a framework agreement for future negotiations, as well as a cease-fire, is to be held in two weeks.