Thanks in part to last-minute U.S. diplomacy, two years of Darfur peace talks beset by setbacks and frustration ended with a signing ceremony between the government and the largest rebel faction Friday.
Now the hard part: ensuring pledges to stop the fighting and begin rebuilding translate to an end to Darfur's suffering. The key may be a robust U.N. peacekeeping force, which Sudan's government has indicated it is willing to accept.
While the main Darfur rebel group signed the accord, two others rejected it, saying it did not go far enough to meet their demands for security and power-sharing guarantees and compensation for war victims. Optimism was muted by the two groups' absence and by a history of failure to live up to agreements.
Members of the fractious rebel camp are united in accusing Sudan's central government of neglecting their impoverished western region, but divided because of leadership rivalries and differing approaches.
The peace deal was backed by the African Union, the United States, Britain, the European Union and the Arab League. It calls for a cease-fire, disarmament of militias linked to the government and accused of some of the war's worst atrocities, the integration of thousands of rebel fighters into Sudan's armed forces and a protection force for civilians in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Political provisions include guarantees that rebel factions will have the majority in Darfur's three state legislatures, though the rebels did not get the national vice presidency they had sought.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick indicated the two rebel groups that did not sign the accord could be bypassed, an assessment bolstered when one of the groups split Friday, with dissenters criticizing their leader for not embracing the treaty.
CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM: Zoellick is keeping his fingers crossed
President Bush intervened during the difficult negotiations, sending a letter to the largest rebel group, Minni Minnawi, with assurances that the U.S. would strongly support implementation of the peace accord, assist monitoring compliance, hold those not cooperating accountable and support a donors conference for Darfur, Zoellick told Washington reporters by telephone.
Zoellick said he read the letter to the assembled parties during the night.
The Sudanese government initially rejected calls for U.N. peacekeepers to replace the thousands of African Union peacekeepers now in Darfur, but indicated Friday it would yield once the peace treaty was signed.
Both the United States and the United Nations welcomed the accord called for the dissenting rebel groups to join the peace process.
"The United States and the international community were united in pressing the parties to accept this peace agreement," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in a statement. "We will remain united in ensuring that it is fully implemented."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "I urge the other two parties to seize this historic moment and sign the agreement that will bring this tragic chapter in the history of Sudan to an end."
Observers broke into applause and whoops of joy as the parties signed the last page and then proceeded to initial each of the 85 pages of a document written by the African Union and then revised by U.S., British and other envoys to meet rebel concerns. The hall in a presidential villa was filled with traditional leaders in white turbans, fighters in camouflage turbans, diplomats and journalists.
"Unless the right spirit, unless the right attitude and right disposition is there, this document isn't worth the paper it is signed on," said Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a key figure in peacemaking efforts across Africa and host of the protracted Darfur talks. "Those who don't sign, we will continue to appeal to them. The window of opportunity must not be allowed to close."
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, just returned from a tour of Darfur, said in Khartoum on Friday that the peace deal "will open up space for improvement," but first must be implemented.
Minni Minnawi's faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement signed the accord. A faction led by his rival, Abdel Wahid Nur, and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement rejected it, expressing concerns security and compensation for war victims had not been guaranteed and because it called for a top presidential adviser from Darfur instead of a vice president.
Nur met with Obasanjo for hours Friday, delaying the signing ceremony, and then briefly went into the hall where the accord was to be signed.
He left, telling reporters the proposed accord was "a big disaster" because he believed it did not go far enough to guarantee disarmament of the Janjaweed militia linked to the atrocities. Nigerian security forces tried to stop Nur from speaking to reporters, then barred reporters who had followed him out from returning to witness the signing.
Sudan's government agreed days ago to an initial proposal drafted by African Union mediators and has been flexible as U.S. and British officials fine-tuned it to address rebel concerns.
Deadlines have been extended twice since Sunday, and Thursday's session went five hours beyond the midnight time limit.
At least 180,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million forced to flee their homes in what the United Nations has called one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The Darfur conflict, which erupted in February 2003, also has spilled into Chad and the Central African Republic. The violence threatens to escalate: Osama bin Laden last week urged his followers to go to Sudan to fight a proposed U.N. presence.
Oxfam called Friday for bolstering the African Union force already in Darfur, rather than awaiting U.N. peacekeepers who could take months to arrive.
"The deteriorating situation in Darfur must be addressed urgently, and not put off until if or when a U.N. force may be in place," said Oxfam official Paul Smith-Lomas.
A cease-fire is supposed to take effect in seven days, and the government is required within 37 days to complete a plan to move armed militia to restricted areas, remove heavy weapons and for disarmament of the warring groups, Zoellick said.
"There will be a push definitely to move forward the U.N. peacekeeping force," he said. However, a rainy season in June will cause a delay and having talked to several African leaders Zoellick said there are estimates it would take four to six months, and maybe longer.
Until then, he said, the United States had asked Rwanda to send in some 1,200 troops to supplement the African Union monitors.
In New York, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, urged the Sudanese government to allow a U.N. planning team into the country to prepare for the hand-over — which it has so far refused to do.