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Zimbabwe's 81-year-old President Robert Mugabe has a stranglehold on that country that will, if left unchecked, be the death of many of its citizens. It's already taken a tremendous toll.

Parliamentary elections were held recently, and the fix was in from the beginning, said notable observers. Amid reports of voter intimidation and fraud, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party won by a landslide.

The United Nations World Food Program warned Mugabe that nearly 3 million of Zimbabwe's 11 million people could stave to death. Mugabe's reaction? He banned all foreign-relief shipments of corn and doled out handfuls in areas presumed to be loyal to his ruling party. To make matters worse, the country's crops have been limited this year due to a lack of rain and experienced farmers. More than 4,000 mostly white farmers have been chased out by Mugabe's government since 1999, severely damaging food production.

Meanwhile, nearly 80 percent of the population is unemployed. Abject poverty doesn't begin to explain the conditions, which worsen with each day.

The African Union, especially its two most powerful states of Nigeria and South Africa, should take a stand against Mugabe and the thugs who help keep him in power. Unfortunately, there is no indication that these countries will do anything, said Robert Rotberg, director of the Belfer Center's program on intrastate conflict at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and president of the World Peace Foundation.

South Africa believes in quiet diplomacy. The problem with that is that it hasn't worked. South African President Thabo Mbeki insists on declaring the recent vote free and fair, and he apparently has no intention of letting the African Union contradict him.

It is hard to overestimate the scope of this tragedy. Mugabe is a cruel dictator of Pol Pot magnitude. He has used food for political purposes and starved his people into submission.

The United States needs to exert a considerable degree of pressure on Mbeki and the African Union. And the United States needs to ratchet up sanctions in such a way that it makes it even more difficult for Zimbabwean officials to travel. The U.S. Treasury has frozen a series of assets, but it hasn't attacked the places were Mugabe has his money -- some in British-controlled territories like the Cayman Islands. The U.S. Treasury has ways of working with the British government to tighten sanctions.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has started ratcheting up the rhetoric by calling Zimbabwe a tyranny. Unfortunately, the administration hasn't followed up her statement with concrete action. At the least, the administration needs to send a special envoy to South Africa and Zimbabwe and make it clear that the U.S. won't tolerate the current conditions.