|Abyei's leaders have failed to reach an accord with Khartoum on where Abyie's borders should lie [Reuters]
The United States will drop Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as July 2011 if Khartoum ensures two key referendums take place on schedule in January and the results are respected.
Unnamed US officials told Reuters on Sunday that Barack Obama, US president, made the offer through Senator John Kerry, who recently told Sudan's leaders the US was ready to "decouple" the issue of Darfur from Khartoum's terror designation to win cooperation on the January polls.
"We like to consider this a pay-for-performance operation," one official said.
Kerry, the powerful Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made two trips to Sudan in recent weeks and carried Obama's latest offer to Khartoum this past weekend, the officials said.
They emphasised that separate US sanctions imposed on Sudan over Darfur would remain until Khartoum makes progress in resolving the humanitarian situation in its troubled western region.
But the officials also held out hope that the offer to end the isolation imposed on Khartoum by its inclusion on the US state terror list would persuade the Sudanese government to begin making the necessary concessions to allow the January votes to proceed as scheduled.
Sudan's two parallel referendums on January 9 could see southern Sudan secede to become Africa's newest state and decide whether the disputed oil-rich territory of Abyei joins the north or the south.
Around 100 people were killed in the May 2008 clashes between northern and southern forces and 50,000 fled their homes.
An estimated 8,000 have returned as reconstruction work has seen Abyei only recently get its first tarmacked street, electricity pylons alongside its straw huts and the reopening of its clinic.
The plebiscites were promised under a 2005 peace deal which ended Sudan's long civil war.
But preparations are badly behind schedule and the two sides continue to disagree on Abyei, raising fears the region could tip back into violence if the votes are mishandled.
The US, which has stepped up its diplomacy in Sudan, wants to see the votes occur peacefully and all related issues, including deals on future citizenship and the sharing of oil revenues, resolved soon.
The state department added Sudan to its state terror list in 1993, accusing Khartoum of harbouring local and international militants including for a time Osama bin Laden.
Sudan is one of four countries on the list along with Cuba, Iran and Syria. The designation carries sanctions on US foreign assistance, a ban on defence exports and sales and a raft of restrictions on financial and other dealings.
Officials say Khartoum has been pushing hard for the US to remove it from the list, as Washington did in prior years with both North Korea and Libya.
Obama's offer moves up by at least six months the date by which Khartoum might come off the list. But the US officials emphasised a final decision would still be contingent on Sudan halting all sponsorship of terrorism for at least six months before the July 2011 target date and pledging not to resume such assistance in the future.
Separate US sanctions imposed over Darfur - which Obama extended for another year on November 1 - would remain until Khartoum improved conditions in the region, where the United Nations estimates up to 300,000 people died following a revolt in 2003, they said.