As problematic as the regime of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is, the United States does not support an armed rebellion by rebel groups to oust him, Dane Smith, the U.S. government's senior adviser for Darfur, said Monday during a visit to Pittsburgh.
"We told the alliance [of rebel groups] that we would not support overthrowing the government by force," Mr. Smith said in answer to a question after his lunchtime speech to about 60 local activists and students at East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
Instead, he said, the U.S. government has told the alliance -- which was organized around the principle of forcing Mr. Bashir out -- that they should "engage" the government in negotiations based on the Doha peace agreement signed in July last year by the government. Though one other rebel group has signed the agreement, none of the allied rebel groups has.
The U.S. government's fear is that an armed rebellion by the alliance would "polarize the Arabs [who dominate the Sudanese government] against everyone else, so they can say, 'Arabs are under attack. Islam is under attack,' " he said.
Mr. Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Guinea, came to Pittsburgh Monday at the invitation of the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition as part of its 2011-12 speaker series that it hopes will reinvigorate what was a vibrant group of activists here for much of the last decade.
The movement has sputtered over the last year, in particular in the wake of South Sudan in July voting to separate from the Sudan government in the north, and a reduction in violence in the Darfur region.
In addition to his lunchtime speech Monday, Mr. Smith was set to give another one at the University of Pittsburgh in the evening, and he visited with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board in the morning.
For lunch, he met up at the Carnegie Library's Hill District branch with members of the Sudanese diaspora who live in Pittsburgh. They enjoyed a dinner of Sudanese food cooked by Kawthar Alve, 35, an immigrant from South Sudan now living in Beechview.
"I cooked all day for this because he is the ambassador and he's our guest and maybe we can have a little friendly talk about South Sudan, because there are still issues there," said Ms. Alve, a hotel housekeeper.
It was a busy schedule, but Mr. Smith -- who has made 10 visits to Sudan since being appointed to his post in 2010 -- said he was happy to participate.
"Our discussions with advocates is an important and ongoing thing," he said in the meeting with the editorial board. "We haven't seen justice served in Darfur. But I think it's important that people understand Darfur isn't the same place it was in 2003 and 2004."
That was at a time when the attacks on towns in the Darfur region of Sudan by armed militias backed by the Sudan government were front-page news around the globe because of atrocities that many considered to be genocide.
Sudan's government is dominated by an Arab elite. Darfur residents believed the government wanted to eradicate -- or at least drive out -- the ethnic African residents of Darfur, a largely rural farming region in the west of the country.
One of the big changes in Darfur since then, Mr. Smith said, was that in 2003 just 18 percent of Darfur was considered urban settlements, but today it is 50 percent urban. That is largely thanks to nearly a decade of about 2 million people living in Darfur in "internally displaced persons" camps, as they're known.
Though the United Nations believes as security improves in Darfur some of the camp residents will try to move back home, Mr. Smith said: "Nevertheless, these places aren't just going to empty out."
Hundreds of people have fled Sudan in recent days amid renewed cross-border clashes between Sudan and South Sudan. Some officials are warning that the violence in the South Kordofan region and Blue Nile state is reminiscent of the conflict in Darfur.
This past week, Mukesh Kapila, a former U.N. representative to Sudan and now a human rights activist, said Sudanese airplanes routinely bomb civilians in South Kordofan, actions he deemed "tantamount to war crimes."
"Inside the Nuba Mountains, I saw burnt villages, destroyed food stores and damaged schools and churches used by civilians to shelter from the fighting," he said.
During Mr. Smith's lunchtime speech, Pach Bior, 37, a former Lost Boy of Sudan who served five years in the rebel army in the south of Sudan when he was a teenager, let him know he disagreed with the U.S. government's Sudan position.
Regime change "is the only way," Mr. Bior said in an interview.
"If you work with [Sudan's government in] Khartoum, you're letting Khartoum kill the people," said Mr. Bior, now a Baldwin resident who works as a security guard while attending Point Park University.
"But I am glad Mr. Smith came to talk to us so we can talk about this," he said.
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579. The Washington Post contributed. First Published March 13, 2012 4:00 AM