Sudan's Bashir vows to accept an independent south

It's been a good day for Southern Sudan: An incredible 98.83 percent of Southern Sudanese voters opted for secession last month, according to official results released today. But almost as incredible, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir proclaimed that he was ready for (and even welcomed) and the secession of the country's southern half. "Today we received these results and we accept and welcome these results because they represent the will of the Southern people," he said on state television. 

Why all the conciliatory talk? After all, this is the same Bashir who many analysts feared would cancel the referendum -- or reject its results -- pushing the country back to the brink of civil war. What gives? 

In short, all the carrots that U.S. diplomats are offering the Sudanese president seem to be working. Among the prizes for Khartoum are a U.S. promise to remove Sudan from its list of terrorism-supporting states and a possible visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to the Sudan Tribune. Earlier this month, U.S. State Department officials also signaled that they would be ready to begin normalization following Sudan's acceptance of the vote.

That's great news for the south; as FP contributor Maggie Fick recently explained, normalization with Washington holds great appeal for Bashir -- in fact, it's a big part of his international agenda. So he's likely to yield to U.S. pressure if it pays off. Bashir's speech today gets Southern Sudan over one big hurdle toward declaring independence, which it is expected to formally do this July. The next test for U.S. pressure and Sudanese diplomacy is whether an equally congenial atmosphere will accompany talks over tricky issues such as border delineation and the sharing of Sudan's oil.

But if Bashir does everything right with regards to the south and Washington does begin to normalize ties, there's just one rather huge catch: The United States risks sacrificing the single-biggest point of leverage that it has over Khartoum -- at exactly that time when another region of the country, Darfur, looks like it may be getting worse, not better. Renewed clashes between government and rebel groups there have sent thousands fleeing from their homes in recent weeks. It's not the kind of behavior one might expect American diplomats to encourage.

Yet Washington forged something of a devil's bargain. In order to get Bashir to accept the referendum, U.S. diplomats announced that they were delinking Southern Sudan and Darfur on their negotiating agenda -- that is, they wanted to ensure that progress could be made in the south even if Darfur stalled. Now, that progress is indeed coming in the south. And Khartoum will soon come looking for its reward.



The French foreign minister's bad trip

New French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, already under fire for suggesting, not so subtly, that France's riot-hardened police could help Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali put down his country's uprising last month, is now embroiled in a controversy over a vacation she took in that country shortly after Christmas, while the riots that brought down Ben Ali were already well under way. In particular, scrutiny has focused on a private jet belonging to a businessman with links to the Ben Ali regime that Alliot-Marie, her partner, and her parents, used twice on their trip. Again, her handling of the controversy has not inspired confidence:

Rather than apologising, her response was combative. "When I'm on holiday, I'm not the foreign minister, I'm Michèle Alliot-Marie," she said.

Less than 24 hours later, she has been forced to retract the statement.

Perhaps mindful of President Nicolas Sarkozy's oft-repeated mantra: "When you're a minister, you're a full time minister," Alliot-Marie told Le Parisien newspaper: "Obviously I am a minister 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Even on holiday, I work in constant contact with my colleagues."

On French radio, she said: "I thought a minister had the right to have friends but if that's the way it is I'll be very careful. Next time I won't leave the Dordogne."

Critics say the businessman, Aziz Miled, has close commercial ties to Ben Ali's brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi. Alliot-Marie says he was actually a "victim" of the regime who was forced to do business with them. Given how many pots the Trabelsis had their fingers in during the final years of the regime, that actually seems plausible. But still, one would think that vacationing in countries undergoing insurrection is a pretty obvious no-no for a foreign minister.