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South Sudan's referendum vote on Sunday could put U.S. diplomacy to the test as it attempts to ensure peace between two sides.

The Economist reports that President Obama paid less attention to Sudan than former President Bush until mid-2010, when he tripled the number of American officials in South Sudan's capital and sent envoys to the country's current capital to pressure northern Sudan leaders. If South Sudan votes to secede, as expected, it will set off a potentially difficult six-month transition.

Sudan observers are concerned that the vote could cause more tension in the region, said Kimberly Smith, president of Make Way Partners, which runs an orphanage and girls' home for trafficking victims in Sudan.

"I don't think there's going to be a fair and equitable election, and that will cause a fight in and of itself," said Smith, who recently authored Passport through Darkness. "People are deceived and think the conflict is over, their attention goes somewhere else."

Just before Christmas, Obama called southern Sudan leader Salva Kiir to reaffirm U.S. support for the referendum. The Obama administration said that it will remove Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism if it honors the peace accord.

Northern Sudan's political leaders are publicly suggesting that they would accept an independent southern Sudan, which Sen. John Kerry called "extremely encouraging." "They're very positive, very constructive, and I think it sets a good stage for the events that begin in the next days," said Kerry, who is visiting the region for a week.

In order to be valid, the referendum requires that 60 percent of those registered turn out to vote.

"We think that it will reflect the will of the people, that it will occur on time, peacefully, and in a well-organized manner," Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters.

In March 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who faces charges of coordinating war crimes in Darfur. Bashir subsequently kicked out several humanitarian agencies.

During his campaign, Obama suggested implementing no-fly zones and called former President Bush's attempts to normalize relations "reckless and cynical," but his policy appeared to shift to a softer approach after the election.

"For the first year and a half of the Obama administration, it was disappointing that officials didn't live up to promises during the campaign," said John Prendergast of The Enough Project. Prendergast is working with George Clooney and Googleto monitor potential battlefields by satellite imagery. "The last few months in 2010 saw a real intensification of effort, mostly for the North/South issues. That's been encouraging to see a much more engaged and involved President and secretary of state."

A previous envoy to Sudan during the Bush administration says that advocacy groups have had to shift their criticism from focusing on Northern leadership receiving justice for the past.

"We aren't going to be able to force the North to do what we want to it to do," said Andrew Natsios, now a professor at Georgetown University. "We should strengthen the South instead of bashing the North all the time."

Obama's special envoy: the son of missionaries

The United States will recognize South Sudan's new government and appoint an ambassador if voters choose to secede in Sunday's referendum, U.S. officials told Reuters. The six-month transition period will revolve around key issues, including borders, citizenship, and oil ownership.

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Sudan Vote to Test Obama's Approach