The other day, a friend of mine, a doctor who is a native of Syria, suggested I write about Darfur. I replied that the terrible humanitarian crisis there had already been covered. He said, no, that wasn’t the story. The story, he said was a slowly developing confrontation with China over the real issue - oil.

The conversation piqued my curiosity, so I started some research, particularly in the foreign press. The results may surprise some, as it did me.

The Darfur story is not one that has been closely followed by the American media, presumably because of its economic dependence on the oil companies. According to a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristoff, ABC News had a total of only 18 minutes devoted to Darfur during all of 2004, when the genocide was being aggressively pursued, NBC had only 5 minutes and CBS only 3 minutes.

The real story starts in China, where, up until 14 years ago, the country produced approximately at least as much oil as it consumed. Since then, the picture has changed dramatically. While production, principally from the Daqing oil fields, has been constant, and is expected to remain so, the country’s consumption has soared.

By 2005, China was importing 40 percent of its oil, as the number of vehicles on its highways rose to 10 million. By 2020, the country is projected to have 120 million vehicles which will require it to import an estimated 60 percent of its oil.

The situation has placed enormous pressure on the leaders of China to keep pace with the demand. Given that the United States controls much of the world’s production, China has had to leave no stone unturned in trying to exert its independence. It has sought and received oil from most exporting nations from Russia and Kazakhstan to Canada and South America.

In many cases, transportation costs have been nearly prohibitive. However, the one area where they have met with reasonable success is Africa, where they are currently dealing with 19 oil producing countries.

And, their most productive and promising venture has been with Sudan. China is not the only country involved in the Sudan, but it is the most active. It currently absorbs 60 percent of the nation’s total output. According to the Observer Research Foundation in India, China has invested at least $20 billion in the country, not including aid and assistance payments to the government in Khartoum.

China has also spearheaded the construction of a 1,000 mile pipeline from the Red Sea to the Sudanese oil fields, which lie just south of Darfur.

On the other side of the world from China, lies the only country with a larger appetite for oil, the United States. Like China, America is a major net importer, with 64 percent of its consumption coming from abroad. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. spends $13 million per hour for foreign oil, just $4 million per hour less than for all of its military operations.

America’s Persian Gulf imports account for $25 billion per year, but the instability in the region is of growing concern.

Therefore, as in the case of China, Africa appears to be an increasingly attractive alternative. Not only is the quality of the crude superior, but the countries there are primarily not members of OPEC. This gives greater negotiating power to the foreign companies and countries developing the oil resources.

And also, like China, the United States has its exploratory eye on the Sudan, or more specifically, Darfur.

Exxon/Mobile and Chevron/Texaco hold a 65% stake in the oil operations associated with a $3.7 billion, 650 mile pipeline extending from the Atlantic coast in Cameroon to Chad, just west of Darfur, a venture in which Chad and Cameroon receive only a 3% interest, incidentally.

Therefore, just as the Chinese pipeline appears poised to enter Darfur from the south, this Cameroon/Chad pipeline appears positioned to enter Darfur from the West.

And, despite those who, for their own purposes, have said that there is no oil lying beneath the killing fields, circumstances have proven them dead wrong.

On April 19, 2005, Mohamed Siddig, a spokesman for the Sudan Energy Ministry, announced that an initial seismographic study revealed the discovery of a huge basin of oil, expected to yield up to 500,000 barrels of crude per day, in the North Darfur area.

And, according to the Africa Research Bulletin: "Darfur proves a pivotal geographic prize. Whoever controls Darfur not only controls Darfur's oil but also has the potential to control the oil in Chad."

Journalist and respected Sudan analyst, David Morse, wrote: "Thus, oil is fueling the genocide in Darfur at every level. This is the context in which Darfur must be understood - and, with it, the whole of Africa. The same Africa whose vast tapestry of indigenous cultures, wealth of forests and savannas was torn apart by three centuries of theft by European colonial powers - seeking gold, slaves and diamonds - is being devastated anew by the 21st century quest for oil."

So stands the situation today. Within Darfur itself, recent reports indicate a drop in atrocities. The reason suggested by many alalysts is that most of the Darfurian villages have already been burned to clear the way for future drilling and pipelines, and to remove the rebels' sanctuaries. Some of the land seized from the black farmers has reportedly been given to Arabs brought in from Chad.

In any event, this reduction in violence is good news for the Bush administration and for its friends in the oil companies, not necessarily for humanitarian reasons, but rather because it may pave the way for the removal of the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Sudan since 1997. It is well known that the administration has maintained close ties to the Sudanese government and has lobbied quietly against the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act in Congress.

The sanctions, of course, currently prevent U.S. companies from engaging in commerce in the country. However, it may be of no particular surprise to anyone that for now, at least, good old American ingenuity has found a way or two around them.

A Reuters story out of London, which was universally ignored by the U.S. media, reported the following:

"Although U.S. oil companies could not openly join the scramble for Sudan's oil, many were finding ways to circumvent the sanctions. One method was by minority ownership. For instance, Marathon Oil, based in Houston and a major contributor to the Bush re-election campaign, is a partner in the French company Total… [At one point] Marathon had resumed payments to the Khartoum government (Sudan) in the expectation that it would take part of Total's operations in the oilfields.

"In addition, certain foreign companies—including some that exist only on paper—were probably serving as place-holders for large U.S. firms until the sanctions could be lifted. One such ‘foreign’ company is registered in the Virgin Islands, uses a Swiss business address, and is owned by an American oil tycoon, Friedhelm Eronat, who has fronted for Exxon Mobil in the past.“

The conflicts in Darfur have been described by some analysts as a brewing mini-war between the US and China over the region’s immense oil resources.

Sources claim that there are thousands of Chinese troops stationed in Sudan to protect Beijing's growing interests.

And, for his part, President Bush announced the creation of a new unified combatant command for Africa this past February. General William “Kip” Ward is in charge of AFRICOM, which is currently seeking an African home.

Some may find it unsettling that an assistant secretary of defense recently found it necessary to say “Africa Command is not going to reflect a U.S. intent to engage kinetically in Africa. This is about prevention. This isn’t about fighting wars.”

Dave McGill, News Correspondent……………….