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Divisions among Sudan's Islamic factions could weaken the regime, but, in the meantime, oil companies are strengthening President Omar el-Bashir's ability to wage war.
Overseas oil consortiums began pumping oil from south-central Sudan in 1999. Farther east, they rapidly explored another oil region and expect to begin yielding oil exports soon. The new trade brings in over $400 million in revenue for Khartoum, more than enough to finance the war it has waged against south Sudan for nearly 18 years. Experts say one of the reasons that war has been so protracted is that the government has not had enough resources to do battle competently-until now.
Overseas companies currently operate in three oil concessions, all falling in contested areas of southern Sudan. The Khartoum government has said it will lease two more this year. China's state-owned oil business, Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC), and the private Canadian firm, Calgary-based Talisman Energy, Inc., are the largest participants in Sudan's fledgling oil trade. They expect south Sudan's oilfields to double their daily output for export-currently at 85,000 barrels-by 2005. During that time Sudan likely will build another oil pipeline, probably east to Ethiopia and through territory currently held by rebels.
Smaller European oil companies, along with Malaysia's Petronas, also have oil operations in south and southwest Sudan. Last month Sudan signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia, opening its way to exporting oil via the Red Sea.
You don't have to tell Americans-at least those who remember
gas-ration lines-that oil politics come only in high-test. With Sudan it is no different. The companies already on the ground have made big investments to break in, and they want to protect their holdings. So China's petroleum firm reportedly purchased a high-tech radar system for the government last year. It was installed last summer, and since then government bombing raids against southern targets (mostly churches and humanitarian relief operations) have increased-the UN, private humanitarian agencies, local churches, and village leaders have confirmed 152 air attacks last year. Talisman Energy opened to government forces an airstrip that it built near its oil concession. To compensate, Talisman posts a special page on its website for "Sudan Operating Principles," including information about its efforts to enact a "code of ethics" for operating in a war zone.
Meanwhile, the UN reports that this year nearly 40,000 people have been displaced from these oil regions. "The oil-rich area of Sudan has seen a great deal of population displacement and in fact is currently one of the most insecure areas in Sudan," said Nicholas Siwingwa, deputy country director of the UN's World Food Program. He said nearly a third of those forced out of the area are malnourished. Most have lost their homes and holdings permanently because they were burned to the ground by government forces.
That report was a concession to private humanitarian groups. U.S. Committee for Refugees director Roger Winter had earlier challenged the UN agency to "make clear that ethnic cleansing linked to oil development in southern Sudan is causing massive civilian displacement." But Mr. Siwingwa would only acknowledge that it was "possible" oil development was contributing to the further horrors of war.