LONDON — After nearly 20 years of hostile relations, the American government plans to reverse its position on Sudan and lift trade sanctions, Obama administration officials said late Thursday.
Sudan is one of the poorest, most isolated and most violent countries in Africa, and for years the United States has imposed punitive measures against it in a largely unsuccessful attempt to get the Sudanese government to stop killing its own people.
On Friday, the Obama administration will announce a new Sudan strategy. For the first time since the 1990s, the nation will be able to trade extensively with the United States, allowing it to buy goods like tractors and spare parts and attract much-needed investment in its collapsing economy.
In return, Sudan will improve access for aid groups, stop supporting rebels in neighboring South Sudan, cease the bombing of insurgent territory and cooperate with American intelligence agents.
American officials said Sudan had already shown important progress on a number of these fronts. But to make sure the progress continues, the executive order that President Obama plans to sign on Friday, days before leaving office, will have a six-month review period. If Sudan fails to live up to its commitments, the embargo can be reinstated.
Analysts said good relations with Sudan could strengthen moderate voices within the country and give the Sudanese government incentives to refrain from the brutal tactics that have defined it for decades.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton imposed a comprehensive trade embargo against Sudan and blocked the assets of the Sudanese government, which was suspected of sponsoring international terrorism. In the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum, the capital, as a guest of Sudan’s government.
In 1998, Bin Laden’s agents blew up the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people. In retaliation, Mr. Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum.
Since then, American-Sudanese relations have steadily soured. The conflict in Darfur, a vast desert region of western Sudan, was a low point. After rebels in Darfur staged an uprising in 2003, Sudanese security services and their militia allies slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians, leading to condemnation around the world, genocide charges at the International Criminal Court against Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and a new round of American sanctions.
American officials said Thursday that the American demand that Mr. Bashir be held accountable had not changed. Neither has Sudan’s status as one of the few countries, along with Iran and Syria, that remain on the American government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Sales of military equipment will still be prohibited, and some Sudanese militia and rebel leaders will still face sanctions.
But the Obama administration is clearly trying to open a door to Sudan. There is intense discontent across the country, and its economy is imploding. American officials have argued for years that it was time to help Sudan dig itself out of the hole it had created.
Officials divulged Thursday that the Sudanese government had allowed two visits by American operatives to a restricted border area near Libya, which they cited as evidence of a new spirit of cooperation on counterterrorism efforts.
In addition to continuing violence in Darfur, several other serious conflicts are raging in southern and central Sudan, along with a civil war in newly independent South Sudan, which Sudan has been suspected of inflaming with covert arms shipments.
Eric Reeves, one of the leading American academic voices on Sudan, said he was “appalled” that the American government was lifting sanctions.
He said that Sudan’s military-dominated government continued to commit grave human rights abuses and atrocities, and he noted that just last week Sudanese security services killed more than 10 civilians in Darfur.
“There is no reason to believe the guys in charge have changed their stripes,” said Mr. Reeves, a senior fellow at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. “These guys are the worst of the worst.”
Obama administration officials said that they had briefed President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition team, but that they did not know if Mr. Trump would stick with a policy of warmer relations with Sudan.
They said that Sudan had a long way to go in terms of respecting human rights, but that better relations could help increase American leverage.
Mr. Reeves said he thought that the American government was being manipulated and that the Obama administration had made a “deal with the devil.”
In a letter to Congress, U.S. President Barack Obama said “actions of the government of Sudan has been altered by Sudan’s positive actions over the past six months.”
There were signs last year of a thaw in relations between Sudan and the United States, which accuses Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of war crimes related to the conflict-torn Darfur region.
On Sept. 20, the State Department welcomed efforts by Sudan to increase counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States. Sudan had taken steps to counter Islamic State and “other terrorist groups and has sought to prevent their movement into and through Sudan,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement at the time.
The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest for Bashir for war crimes and genocide related to Darfur, charges he dismisses.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government, accusing it of discrimination. The U.N. says up to 300,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in Darfur.
The Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide group, called the lifting of sanctions “premature” and said any easing of pressure on Sudan should be in exchange for resolving conflicts in Darfur and in South Kordofan, and ensuring humanitarian access to those affected by government military blockades.
“We will certainly seek to work with the U.S. Congress to see some of these sanctions restored, modernized, and codified in the coming months,” said John Prendergast, director of the Enough Project.
Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, called the decision “inexplicable” and said there had been no progress on human rights.
“Sudan’s government has failed to make progress on core benchmarks, from its ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur and other conflict zones, to its extensive repression of independent voices,” Lefkow said.
“Instead of using its leverage to press for real reforms that would benefit Sudanese citizens, the Obama administration is sending the worst possible message to Sudan and other repressive governments,” Lefkow added.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Susan Heavey; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Andrew Hay)