ABU SUROUJ, Sudan -- As Darfur smolders in the aftermath of a new government offensive, a long-sought peacekeeping force, expected to be the world's largest, is in danger of failing even before it begins its mission because of bureaucratic delays, stonewalling by Sudan's government and reluctance from troop-contributing countries to send peacekeeping forces into an active conflict.
The force, which officially took over from an overstretched and exhausted African Union force in Darfur on Jan. 1, has just more than 9,000 of an expected 26,000 soldiers and police officers, and will not fully deploy until the end of the year, U.N. officials said.
The peacekeepers' work is more essential than ever. At least 30,000 people were displaced last month when the government and its allied militias fought to retake territory held by rebel groups fighting in the region, according to United Nations rights officials.
Even the troops that are in place, the old African Union force and two other battalions, lack essential equipment, like sufficient armored personnel carriers and helicopters, to carry out even the most rudimentary peacekeeping tasks. Some even had to buy their own paint to turn their green helmets U.N. blue, peacekeepers here said.
A week spent this month with the peacekeeping troops based here at the headquarters of Sector West, a wind-blown outpost at the heart of the recent violence, revealed a force struggling mightily to do better than its much-maligned predecessor, but with little new manpower or equipment.
Despite this, the force is managing to project a greater sense of security for the tens of thousands of vulnerable civilians in the vast territory it covers, mounting night patrols in displaced people's camps and sending long-range patrols to the areas hardest hit by fighting. But these small gains are fragile, and if more troops do not arrive soon, the force will be written off as ineffective and as compromised as the one before.
"We really don't have much time to prove we can do better," said Brig. Gen. Balla Keita, the Senegalese commander of the roughly 2,000 troops in West Darfur, just one-third of the expected total for the area. "God gave the prophets the ability to achieve miracles so that people would believe. So people here will believe when they see improvements on the ground. And that cannot wait for more troops. We need to do better with what we have."
The deployment of the biggest peacekeeping force in modern history in one of the most remote, hostile and forbidding corners of the globe was bound to be a logistical nightmare. Darfur is landlocked, water is scarce, the roads are rutted tracks.
But those problems pale in comparison with the diplomatic and political struggles the mission faces.
For months after the U.N. Security Council approved the force, Sudan insisted on the power to dictate which countries contributed troops, to shut down its communication systems when the government carried out offensives and to restrict the movement of peacekeepers at night.
Ultimately, the government compromised with the United Nations allowing the force to operate, but Sudan was successful in insisting that the vast majority of troops come from African countries, and will be supplemented by soldiers from other regions only if suitable African troops cannot be found.
Rodolphe Adada of the Congo Republic, the mission's civilian chief, said the force had a budget of $1.7 billion. What it needs is troops and equipment, and neither has been easy to get. More pressure on the Sudanese government, he said, would not help.
"What more pressure can be put on the Sudanese government?" he said. "All the decisions have been taken. There is nothing left to say. What we need to do is act."