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The government of Sudan and southern rebels signed a peace agreement last weekend. The deal could end one of Africa’s longest civil wars. While hopes are high, there are many reasons to be cautious. The history of this conflict is fraught with agreements that have been betrayed.

More ominously, fighting continues in the Darfur region of the western part of the country. Sudan is unlikely to know real peace until the entire country has been pacified.

The roots of the Sudanese conflict are deep. Since the country gained independence in 1956, it has been governed by Arab-dominated elites. Yet the Sudanese people are divided between Arabs (usually Muslim) and Africans, who are Christian or hold traditional animistic beliefs.

More than two decades ago, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) spearheaded a revolt to gain a greater share of the country’s wealth and power. The trigger was the Khartoum government’s attempt to impose Islamic law, or sharia, on the entire country. In the intervening 21 years, it is estimated that 2 million people have lost their lives and 4 million have lost their homes. An entire generation of Sudanese has grown up knowing only war.

The comprehensive deal struck Sunday in Nairobi was the result of negotiations that began in 1997. It makes Mr. John Garang, the leader of the SPLA, a vice president of Sudan under President Omar Hassan el-Bashir. The two sides have six months to draw up a new constitution as well as form a transitional government in Khartoum and a separate administration in the south. The two governments will share oil revenues, integrate their militaries and decentralize power. English and Arabic will become official languages. Islamic law will apply only in the north. A new banking system will be established.

July will mark the beginning of a six-year transition period, at the end of which southerners will vote in a referendum on whether to secede and form their own country. National elections are to be held within four years.

That is an ambitious agenda. The country’s history does not give much reason for confidence. The peace negotiations were long because they broke down several times. The Khartoum government’s casual approach to its obligations in the past has increased suspicions and underscored the need for international monitors and regional involvement in the implementation of the agreement. It is estimated that at least 9,000 troops will be needed to oversee the accord.

Sudan is poor. Despite oil revenues of some $4 billion annually, it has debt of some $26 billion and badly needs development. The south is hardscrabble, lacking roads and other infrastructure, and has long been neglected and battered by war. Last year the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution promising political and economic support for Sudan once peace is established. That assistance is conditioned, however, on the end to all the wars in the country, and therein lies a problem.

The peace agreement does not include the rebel parties in the Darfur dispute, whose demands are similar to those of the SPLA. Incredibly, the situation in Darfur continues to deteriorate. It is “incredible” because it is hard to imagine how conditions could get much worse.

Two years of fighting have created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The unrest there has been driven by the same factors — abuse and neglect — that obliged the SPLA to take up arms. The fighting reportedly has claimed between 70,000 and 300,000 lives and left nearly 2 million people homeless. Because of the use of militias to kill and burn villages, the systematic slaughter in Darfur has been called genocide.

All parties — including the Darfur rebels — support the Nairobi peace accord, while acknowledging that continued fighting in Darfur could undermine the deal. Since the southerners understand Darfur’s grievances, they are unlikely to support Khartoum’s efforts to wage war. If they offer sanctuary — or even refuse to take up arms against the Darfur rebels — then fighting in the south could resume. Since the agreement does not oblige the government or the rebels to disband their militaries, renewed conflict remains a real threat.

Fatigue is one reason to be cautiously optimistic. Khartoum and the SPLA negotiated a ceasefire at the end of 2002, and it has largely held. But it may yet be too much to hope that the prospect of rebuilding a shattered nation and bettering the lives of its citizens is incentive enough for the government of Sudan to keep its promises. Khartoum must know that the eyes of the world remain upon it as it implements the agreement it signed Sunday.

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