Obama signs executive order easing sanctions against Sudan

President Obama signed an executive order Friday easing but not eliminating sanctions against Sudan, in an eleventh-hour push to broaden currently limited talks with the long-estranged African government.

The eased sanctions will enable trade and investment transactions to resume with Sudan, a U.S.-designated terrorism sponsor whose leader has been indicted on war crimes charges. The White House announced the decision as part of a five-track engagement process.

But Obama built in a six-month waiting period before the benefits for Sudan come into effect. By July 12, several U.S. agencies would have to affirm to the White House -- which will be controlled by President-elect Donald Trump -- that Sudan is continuing taking positive steps before the sanctions would be eased.

In a letter to Congress, Obama said he's determined that the situation that led the U.S. to impose and continue sanctions had changed over the last six months in light of Sudan's "positive actions."

"These actions include a marked reduction in offensive military activity, culminating in a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, and steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan, as well as cooperation with the United States on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism," Obama said.

The penalties being suspended by the policy change could be re-imposed if Sudan backtracks on the progress it has made. Obama's order also directed the government to produce an annual report on whether Sudan was upholding the positive steps it has taken.

Still, human rights groups were quick to question the move. Human Rights Watch called the decision "explicable" and said Sudan continues committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"The Obama administration is sending the worst possible message to Sudan and other repressive governments: If you cooperate on counterterrorism, then all abuses -- including by your president -- will be ignored," said the group's Africa director, Leslie Lefkow.

Officials said the administration was keeping in place the broad set of economic and financial sanctions Sudan faces as a result of its "state sponsor of terrorism" designation.

In any case, decisions on continuing the diplomatic outreach will be up to the incoming Trump administration, which takes office on Jan. 20. Trump hasn't commented publicly about Sudan sanctions. But during the campaign, Walid Phares, who advised Trump on national security issues, suggested Trump was opposed to lifting sanctions on Sudan.

The human rights community has long blasted Khartoum's Arab-led government for its conduct in Darfur and treatment of various ethnic groups.

Beyond recognizing Sudan's improvements, the officials said the new approach signals an admission that years of limited U.S. engagement with Khartoum had not produced the desired result. Such an acknowledgement fits with a general pattern under Obama of rapprochement with rogue or antagonistic states, including Cuba, Iran and Myanmar.

The administration hinted at a policy shift last fall.

In September, the State Department issued an out-of-the-blue statement welcoming Khartoum's cooperation in fighting Islamic extremist groups, without mentioning any specific development or reason for the public release. It said Sudan had taken "important steps" to take on the Islamic State group and other such organizations, adding that the U.S. would work with the country on security matters while pressing it on human rights and democracy.

At the time, the department said the U.S. maintained grave concerns about Sudan's policies, notably its handling of unrest in the western Darfur region, but described normalized relations as not out of the question.

The department first labeled Sudan a terrorism sponsor in 1993. Among those Sudan harbored was Osama bin Laden, prompting President Bill Clinton to launch airstrikes in 1998. Sudan is one of only three countries still identified as such after Cuba was removed from the list in 2015. Syria and Iran are the others, although the Obama administration sealed a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran a year and a half ago.

Sudan's changes have largely occurred beneath the radar. But the U.S. credits the country with limiting travel of Islamic State militants and shifting toward greater alignment with Saudi Arabia, and less with Iran. Israel also has pressed the U.S. to adopt a friendlier relationship with Sudan after it cracked down on shipments of suspected Iranian weapons to groups hostile to the Jewish state.

The announcement will surely draw criticism from human rights groups because of ongoing allegations of rights abuses, notably in Darfur, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court for related atrocities. Al-Bashir is wanted for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide charges.

Darfur has been gripped by bloodshed since 2003, when rebels took up arms against the government, accusing it of discrimination and neglect. The United Nations says 300,000 people have died in the conflict and 2.7 million have fled their homes.