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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, ...

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January 2011

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