Breaking nearly six months of silence on the issue, U.S. President George W. Bush reaffirmed Wednesday his belief that "genocide" is taking place in Darfur, Sudan, but gave no indication that his administration is prepared to pursue aggressive efforts to stop it.
"This is a serious situation," Bush said during a White House photo opportunity with visiting South African President Thabo Mbeki.
"As you know, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, with my concurrence, declared the situation a genocide," he added, noting that he was consulting North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Western allies about providing logistical support for an African Union (AU) monitoring group of about 2,300 soldiers and police.
Human-rights and Africa activists who have voiced growing concerns that Washington has shifted towards a policy of rapprochement with the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum said they were unimpressed by Bush's statement.
"Bush's statement is hopelessly opportunistic," said Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who has played a leadership role in the international campaign to draw attention to the killings in Darfur. "It can only be intended to pre-empt the perception that his administration has backed away from its previously robust position" against Khartoum.
"It seems like Bush is trying to hide behind Colin Powell," said Ann-Louise Colgan, deputy director of advocacy group Africa Action. "It's a completely insufficient response to genocide to say that you're sending a transport plane."
"It's quite clear from reports on the ground in Darfur that the genocide continues and that the most important priority is protecting the people there," Colgan added. "Nothing short of a multinational intervention can achieve that at this point."
Bush's remarks came amid growing pressure on the administration to do more about Darfur, where a nearly two-and-a-half-year counter-insurgency campaign by government forces and government-backed Arab militias, called Janjaweed, against the region's African inhabitants has resulted in the deaths of as many as 400,000 people, according to some studies, and the uprooting of 2.5 million others.
Last week, some 80 human rights and religious groups and prominent individuals sent a letter to the White House calling on Washington to submit a resolution at the U.N. Security Council that would authorise the AU's monitoring operation in Darfur to use armed force to protect civilians.
Arguing that "genocide" was an international concern, the groups, which included Africa Action, the National Council of Churches USA, and Physicians for Human Rights, among others, also called on the administration to mobilise a "robust international force" to augment the AU mission.
Meanwhile, the initiators of the "Darfur Genocide Accountability Act", which if approved would authorise Bush to use military force to stop the killing there, announced that 114 lawmakers -- or more than 25 percent of the House of Representatives -- have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
And a new national poll released here Wednesday by the International Crisis Group (ICG) just before Bush's appearance with Mbeki found that nearly four out of five respondents favour stronger action by the international community to stop the killing, including the imposition of a "no-fly zone" over Darfur to prevent Khartoum's aircraft from flying over the region.
The poll, which was conducted by Zogby International on behalf of the ICG, also found that while only 64 percent of respondents said they were aware of the situation in Darfur, 84 percent said the U.S. should not tolerate an extremist government committing genocide or crimes against humanity against its own population and should use military assets, short of U.S. troops on the ground, to help stop it.
The pressure for Bush to do more, however, also is coming from sources outside the U.S. -- although notably not from Mbeki who, as a good guest, praised Bush for the logistical assistance he has provided to the AU's operation to date.
"You will notice that we have not asked for anybody outside the African continent to deploy troops in Darfur. It's an African responsibility, and we can do it," Mbeki told reporters.
His statement drew scorn from Colgan of Africa Action. "The AU has shown important leadership but it cannot shoulder this burden alone and it should not have to because genocide is a crime against humanity," she said.
Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan traveled to Darfur to express his personal concern, visit camps of displaced people, and urge Khartoum to immediately comply with existing Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to the violence and the disarmament of the Janjaweed.
No sooner had Annan left, however, than the authorities arrested his Sudanese interpreter and the top two leaders of the Dutch division of Doctors Without Borders (AzG, by its Dutch initials), which had just published a report documenting widespread rapes in Darfur. Khartoum had demanded that AzG produce evidence for the report's conclusions but the group refused to hand over medical records.
Groups here also noted that the arrests also followed statements in defence of Khartoum by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. Zoellick, who is expected to visit Darfur this weekend, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that he believed the NIF regime was "working hard for a political solution" in Darfur.
Zoellick's statement was the latest in a series of administration moves that alarmed activists who said that, instead of trying to increase pressure on Khartoum, Washington had actually launched a rapprochement.
To their great distress, Washington has for months failed to push for the Security Council to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions against Khartoum for not complying with previous resolutions. The administration has argued that such an effort would be useless because China, which has large oil-related investments in Sudan, and Russia, which is the regime's biggest arms supplier, are likely to veto such a measure.
Moreover, on a trip to Darfur in mid-April, Zoellick declined to personally endorse Powell's assessment that the situation constituted "genocide" and instead produced a State Department report that estimated total deaths in the region at only between 60,000 and 160,000. That assessment was dismissed as impossibly low not only by activist groups but also by the Washington Post, which compared the results of methodologies of several recent independent studies.
Most provocative, however, was news that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had secretly flown the Khartoum regime's intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, here in mid-April for high-level meetings on sharing intelligence in what the White House calls its "war on terrorism." Gosh has been named as one of the officials responsible for directing the counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur.
All of these moves have fired up activist groups that have taken to staging weekly protests outside the White House. On Wednesday evening, several hundred people were expected to take part in a "die-in" in Lafayette Park, across the street from the presidential mansion.
It is in that context that Bush's remarks Wednesday should be understood, according to Reeves. "He wants to make it harder for critics to say that he's backing away from a stronger policy," he told IPS, adding that the ploy is unlikely to work. "It's good that the president reaffirms that it's genocide. But how can a genocidal regime be 'working hard for a political solution,' as Zoellick said just last week?"