KHARTOUM, Sudan – Over the years, secretaries of state generally have avoided Sudan (search), partly the result of its poor human rights record. But Colin Powell (search) made a 23-hour visit here this week precisely because he believes the country's rights performance is so sorry.
As Powell sees it, thuggery by Arab militias against black Africans in western Darfur province (search) has created a humanitarian catastrophe.
He appealed to Sudanese leaders to rein in the militias, ease restrictions on humanitarian access to Darfur and take steps to promote a political settlement between the rival factions. He believes he made some headway.
The announcement of Powell's visit here — the first by a secretary of state since 1978 — sparked some wild rumors on Khartoum (search) streets. One had him planning to fly here in the company of 300 Marines. It was not clear what they would do once they arrived.
A Sudanese reporter, speaking to an American colleague, wondered why Powell was making such a fuss about Darfur with so many people dying in Iraq. The Sudanese government seems to think that Darfur's problems have been greatly exaggerated — the product of an obsessed American media.
U.S. ties with Sudan have been strained for years. Washington has imposed 12 separate sanctions against Sudan, some of them a result of the State Department's designation of Sudan as a terrorist country, a status that brings automatic penalties under law.
Still, the two countries have had reason to keep channels open. With the help of the United States and other countries, the Islamic government has made significant progress toward ending its 21-year old struggle with non-Muslims in southern Sudan — a conflict that has left more than 2 million dead.
Also, Sudan has pleased U.S. officials by sharing information with the administration about international terrorist activities.
Powell flew to Sudan from Turkey Tuesday night and went straight to the office of President Omar el-Bashir (search), who quickly promised to rein in the Arab militias and to take other steps to improve the lot of the more than 1 million people in Darfur uprooted by conflict.
As a stick, Powell warned that the United States might take the issue to the U.N. Security Council if Sudan ignored the problem. He believes that got Bashir's attention because no government wants the stigma of Security Council sanctions.
On Wednesday, when much of Khartoum was celebrating the 15th anniversary of Bashir's (search) rise to power, Powell was off to Darfur, flying westward over thirsty, rust-colored Sahara (search) sands. It was one of those rare days when Powell showed up for work in a sport shirt instead of a coat and tie. The temperature hovered around 100 degrees.
It was not clear whether Powell knew what to expect when he visited the al-Shouk (search) camp for the displaced in eastern Darfur. Would he find emaciated children?
In fact, there was very little sign of the human suffering and depression so common at camps for the uprooted. Powell's visit was a joyous occasion, with tens of thousands offering a warm welcome, many struggling just to get a glimpse of him. They seemed healthy and well fed. The most obvious sign of deprivation was the row upon row of ramshackle housing, consisting mostly of plastic sheeting.
Powell said al-Shouk was better off than other camps in Darfur, which lack the same level of humanitarian access. He suggested that many of Darfur's homeless have not made it to camps and are out on their own. And he believes thousands will die in Darfur during the summer even under the best of circumstances.
But by the time Powell's plane departed Sudan Wednesday at dusk for Indonesia (search), his next stop, the Sudanese seemed fully on board with the U.S. proposals for Darfur. Powell's main question was whether they would follow up their words with action.
"These people want to go home," he said, alluding to Darfur's displaced. "They need to go home and they can't go home unless they feel safe."