Washington (CNN) -- Days after voter registration began in Sudan, President Barack Obama loosened U.S. sanctions so that computers can be exported to the East African nation for an upcoming key election.
In a presidential memorandum Friday, Obama said it was "in the U.S. national security interest" to waive a part of the sanctions act to allow for "equipment that enables the United Nations to facilitate the referendum in Southern Sudan."
The United States imposed comprehensive economic, trade and financial sanctions against Sudan in 1997.
Eligible voters began registering Monday for the referendum in January that would allow the country's autonomous southern region -- which holds a majority of the nation's oil -- to secede from the north.
A United Nations panel has already arrived in Sudan to monitor the 17-day registration effort, which will take place at 3,000 sites across the country and in eight countries abroad.
The referendum, part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a bloody two-decade conflict, is potentially a make-or-break event for the peace accord. The vote also could be a key factor as U.S. officials weigh whether to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration told Sudanese officials that the United States would drop the country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in mid-2011 if President Omar al-Bashir's government recognizes the results of the secession referendum.
Al-Bashir has ruled Sudan since a 1989 coup. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in a genocide in the western Darfur region.
The Darfur conflict is separate from the north and south war, and is between government militias and ethnic rebels.
Observers fear all-out war between the Khartoum-controlled north and southern Sudan if the government is perceived to have undermined the voting or refuses to accept the result.
"The referendum on self-determination ... must take place peacefully and on time," Obama told world leaders at the United Nations in September.
"And the will of the people of southern Sudan ... must be respected regardless of the outcome."