JUBA, Sudan — The Sudan People's Liberation Army was a ragtag guerrilla group six years ago, battling a bloody civil war with Sudan's north. The SPLA becomes a national army Saturday, when the south breaks away and becomes the world's newest country.
The United States is investing tens of millions of dollars into this fledgling military, one that is massing troops on the north-south border as tensions — and violence — with the north rise. SPLA troops are battling rebel militias in hot spots across the south, and fears of renewed war with the north are high.
But international rights groups say those soldiers have been responsible for human-rights abuses, including killings.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who sponsored a law that prohibits U.S. aid to foreign military units that violate human rights, says he is concerned about those reports.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will head a U.S. delegation that will attend ceremonies marking the nation's independence. Powell was instrumental in brokering the 2005 peace accord between the north and south.
The United States backed the south's push for independence, and the Obama administration long had said it would formally recognize Southern Sudan.
The State Department is giving nearly $100 million in yearly assistance to train and support the SPLA and says the behavior of the former guerrilla fighters is being monitored. Yet, watching the 140,000-plus-member army of a developing nation the size of Texas is a nearly impossible task.
In April, a 700-member battalion of SPLA commandos — the most highly trained of the army's fighters — fired indiscriminately on unarmed men, women and children of a rival ethnic group at a remote Nile River village in Jonglei state, killing or wounding hundreds, according to witness accounts in a confidential U.N. report.
The State Department, after a congressional inquiry, investigated and found no U.S. aid was being given to the two commanders named in the report or to the unit as a whole.
Since Sudan's decades-long civil war ended — some 2 million people were killed — the U.S. government has given more money than any other to programs aimed at professionalizing the SPLA. According to the Open Society Foundations, the Obama administration is requesting nearly $160 million in aid to the armed forces in Southern Sudan for fiscal year 2012.
The aid is to help the SPLA develop logistics, engineering abilities, medical, and command-and-control abilities.
Sudan experts say a responsible, professional army will be essential to improving security in a region where basic principles of rule of law and justice have yet to be upheld and enforced.
According to U.N. statistics, conflicts such as cattle-raiding and battles between rebel militias and the SPLA have claimed at least 1,800 lives this year.
The SPLA has a lot of growing up to do as the world's youngest national military. In a November report by the Small Arms Survey, author Richard Rands concluded an "overarching strategy" for the long-term transformation of the SPLA from a guerrilla movement to a conventional army "has not yet emerged."