KHARTOUM - U.S. President Donald Trump's new aid chief, Mark Green, kicked off an African tour in Sudan on Sunday, where he will assess whether Khartoum has done enough to get help into conflict areas to deserve eased sanctions.
It is Green's first trip as administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a job he began two weeks ago amid talk of budget cuts and a wide-reaching reorganization of the agency by the Trump administration.
He is due to visit aid projects in drought-hit zones including neighboring Ethiopia, at a time when Washington is considering an estimated 30-percent cut in the budget of the State Department and USAID.
But his priorities will also include weighing whether Washington should reform one of its main diplomatic fronts in the region - a raft of sanctions imposed first over Khartoum's perceived support of global terrorism, later its violent suppression of rebels in Darfur.
U.S. officials have said existing limited steps to ease sanctions are meant to recognize progress in Sudan, particularly moves to reduce internal conflict and increase cooperation with Washington in the war against terrorism.
Just before leaving office, former U.S. President Barack Obama temporarily eased penalties against Sudan, suspending a trade embargo, unfreezing assets and removing financial sanctions.
In July, the Trump administration postponed for three months a decision on whether to remove the restrictions full-time — giving it an Oct. 12 deadline to make up its mind.
Part of Green's fact-finding mission, say the officials, will be to assess whether the Khartoum government is letting aid into Darfur and other rebellious border areas, one of several conditions that needs to be met.
Speaking to U.N. representatives and other donors hours after his arrival in Khartoum, Green said his visit showed the importance of improved humanitarian access.
"This review period is not the sole reason I am here, but it is one," he said. "I'm here to listen, learn, and gather information to take back to Washington as the administration evaluates Sudan's progress," he said.
Green assured donors that the United States would not walk walk away from funding the humanitarian crisis, despite the proposed budget cuts.
"The United States will not walk away from our commitment to humanitarian assistance, and we will always stand with people everywhere when disaster strikes, for that is who we are is Americans," said Green.
Any lifting of economic penalties would be a major turnaround for the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who once played host to Osama bin Laden and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of orchestrating genocide in Darfur.
Washington has not weakened its condemnation of the tactics the Sudanese government used in Darfur — and Sudan remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Iran and Syria.
But the different signals on sanctions have come at a time of seismic changes in the region — U.S. security officials have praised Khartoum's more recent help in fighting al Qaeda and dealing with the turmoil in northern neighbor Libya.
Diplomatic calculations have also changed since South Sudan collapsed into chaos after declaring independence from Sudan in 2011.
Green, a 57-year-old former four-term Republican congressman from Wisconsin, served as U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania under President George W. Bush, and helped craft key areas of Bush's signature AIDS program, PEPFAR.
Earlier this month, he told Reuters he needed to do more with less as he faced the prospect of budget cuts, and had to prove to Trump that development assistance could further his "America First" agenda.