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Sudan's circle of power unbowed, unbroken

Despite international criticism and fractious feuding, Sudan's ministers and security officials maintain a tight web of power.
Sudan's First Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and Norway's PM Kjell Magne Bondevik attend the international conference on aid for Sudan in Oslo
Sudan's First Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha attends an international conference on aid for Sudan in Oslo, Norway, on April 11.Scanpix via Reuters file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The men who control Africa's largest country — the key architects of the conflict in Darfur — hail from two tiny, interwoven Arab tribes. Many of them grew up together and graduated from Khartoum University. They often sit together in cafés beside the Nile, bickering about politics and religion over endless cups of sweet tea.

They attend the weddings of each other's sons and daughters, who frequently marry within the two tribes. They are neighbors and rivals, nephews and cousins. Politics in Sudan is often a family affair, and as in any family, there are occasional feuds.

For instance, Hassan Turabi, a college professor and radical Islamic cleric, led a military coup in 1989 against his brother-in-law Sadiq Madhi, the country's popularly elected leader. The main backers of the coup were Turabi's protégés, Omar Hassan Bashir and Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha, now Sudan's president and vice president. Yet not long before that, Madhi had presided over the wedding ceremony of Taha and his bride, Turabi's cousin.

"In Sudan we say, 'You meet your enemies at weddings,' " said Turabi's son Issam, 39, whose father has been jailed or under house arrest for nearly five years after a bitter falling-out with Bashir and Taha. "All of politics in Khartoum is a bunch of warring families trying to stay in power over one another."

Khartoum’s ‘security cabal’ digs in
This is Sudan's ruling elite: shadowy and insular, incestuous and fractious. It's an unusual arrangement for a continent more accustomed to the rule of patriarchal Big Men, such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, with a single personality dominating the national psyche.

Despite their tendency to feud, Sudan's inner circle of ministers and security officials form a tight web of power that combines tribal, religious and military elements. Its formal name is the National Islamic Front, but it is known in Khartoum as the "security cabal."

The cohesion of this club has enabled the government to weather the chill of world condemnation for years — first in the 1990s for harboring terrorists like Osama bin Laden and waging a protracted war against African rebels in the south and now for carrying out a second armed campaign in the western region of Darfur.

Even though both the Bush administration and the United Nations have spoken out on the situation in Darfur, with U.S. officials even terming it a case of genocide, the Khartoum government has remained entrenched. And Taha, the man widely viewed as the chief architect of Darfur's war, has now repackaged himself as the voice of reconciliation, heading peace talks with its rebel groups.

"When this government first came, they had their own project" to build an Islamic state, said Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh, editor of Al Ayam, an independent newspaper here. "But eventually it became survival politics — to remain in power at any cost.

"If that means dropping an Islamic agenda and kicking out bin Laden, then fine," he said. "If that means making peace in the south, then fine. If that means reversing themselves on Darfur publicly, then fine. As long as they stay in power, they are willing to appease the international community and do just enough to maintain control."

A new power rises
During the 1960s, Sudan's Muslim Brotherhood was born on the campus of Khartoum University, once one of Africa's most prestigious schools. The charismatic, urbane Turabi taught law there, wearing neckties as comfortably as turbans, sliding easily between Arabic and English, and courting Western visitors with warm hospitality.

Yet Turabi was also a religious leader who inculcated his students with a mission that included spreading the Arabization of Africa and spearheading the rise of Islam as a form of government in secular states. In 1985, the Muslim Brotherhood was renamed the National Islamic Front, and in 1989 it seized power.

After the coup, Turabi was widely considered the force behind the throne, while the popular Bashir ruled as president and Taha, an astute intellectual and former judge, acted as chief aide to Turabi, his spiritual mentor.

Taha and a group of senior ministers formed the mainstay of what officials call Sudan's Islamic revolution. They installed strict Islamic sharia law and launched a campaign to convert the Christian and animist populace of the Nuba mountains to Islam, according to reports by U.N. officials and human rights monitoring groups.

Under Turabi's leadership, Sudan offered residency to any Arab or Muslim. This policy allowed bin Laden to take up residence in Khartoum, along with Imad Mughniyah, the man believed to be responsible for the 1983 suicide bombing in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. Marines , and Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan drug lord known as "Carlos the Jackal" who converted to Islam and pledged allegiance to bin Laden.

As a result of such actions, the United States in 1993 designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Under pressure from Washington and Saudi Arabia, however, the Khartoum government kicked out bin Laden in 1996. Meanwhile, Sudanese authorities handed over Sanchez to French agents. He was flown to Paris for trial. Mughniyah left Sudan and narrowly escaped arrest by U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia.

Reaching out to the East
Still ostracized by the West and unable to tap into U.S. oil markets, the Khartoum government began fostering ties with China. Once oil production began in 1999, the government began collecting $500 million a year in revenue. This paid for Chinese-made tanks, guns and planes used to fight southern rebels, the group Human Rights Watch reported. Khartoum's military budget doubled, and the State Department described it as the richest government in Africa.

Meanwhile, Turabi had a bitter falling-out with Bashir and Taha and left the government in 1999. Since then, Bashir and Taha have operated as a two-man team.

Bashir, 61, a popular army officer, is said to focus his attention on the military. He still lives at army headquarters and recently assumed the title of field marshal. During the conflict between the north and south, he married the widow of an officer who died in combat.

Taha, four years younger and more polished, is described by diplomats and other observers as the man who runs the country from day to day. He and Bashir speak daily.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Bashir-Taha government agreed to cooperate with the U.S. war on terror. Officials handed over documents on terror suspects, loosened sharia law and distanced themselves from Turabi's Islamic agenda. The government also supported U.S.-backed peace talks with the southern rebels, and both signed a historic power-sharing deal earlier this year.

Recently Sudan's national security chief, Salah Abdala Gosh, visited Washington as a guest of the Bush administration as part of an anti-terrorism program. Gosh is one of the officials said to be directly involved in the military campaign in Darfur.

"The current government is now a very pragmatic police state." said Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer here. "Taha is extremely smart, and also . . . extremely Machiavellian. Nothing sticks."

Crisis in Darfur
Sudan's government was just emerging from international isolation when another rebellion broke out in Darfur in early 2003. Two guerrilla groups charged the government and its Arab clique with neglecting and ostracizing African tribes from power. This ethnic issue was related to an economic one: the long-standing problem of Arab herders taking over traditional African grazing lands.

Without warning, rebels attacked the El Fasher airport and several military posts with a fury that shocked Khartoum. At the time, Taha was in Kenya, engrossed in the final weeks of peace negotiations with the southern rebels. But with Bashir's army weakened and Taha in charge of national security, the vice president quickly assumed a key role, according to a State Department report.

In an interview last week, Taha, a slim man who wears crisp safari suits and loafers, said he began receiving desperate phone calls from top officials, including Bashir, about how to combat the insurgency erupting in Darfur. He said he decided to drop out of the peace talks in Kenya so he could direct a military campaign at home.

"I launched my vision of how the situation could be best handled," he said in his office in the National Palace, its entrance arched by a pair of giant elephant tusks and guarded by two five-barreled machine guns.

Statesmanship or survival instinct?
Taha said the government had no choice but to use force, arming local Popular Defense Forces and army reserves, to push back the rebels. But U.N. and human rights groups also reported that the government bombed hundreds of villages and armed and financed Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, which then raided and burned many villages, driving nearly 2 million mostly African tribespeople off their land.

At the time, the government denied there were serious problems and shrugged off international criticism. Recently, however, Taha has taken on a more measured and conciliatory tone.

"Nobody would say we've been perfect in handling Darfur," he said in the interview. "In war, things happen that are outside of the normal. . . . In such a complex situation, there would be gaps and shortcomings. One wishes that this chapter in Sudan's history had not taken place."

Diplomats and other analysts said Taha's emerging role as statesman has demonstrated once more how practiced the Khartoum government is at survival. Another strength, they said, is its ability to tap into the tight circle of talented loyalists during a crisis.

"No one expected this government to stay in power for more than a year," said Gill Lusk, a senior analyst with Africa Confidential, a research group based in London. "They are extremely politically savvy. Their strategies worked very well at the start of Darfur. Taha runs a tight team, all with talents he understands well how to use."

For example, the government often sends out Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail to meet foreign officials and conduct tours with the news media. Ismail is known to foreign diplomats and aid workers as "Mr. Smile" for his ability to make dire situations sound just fine.

Last fall, when Jan Pronk, the U.N. special envoy to Sudan, visited Darfur, Ismail strode with him through a burned camp, which film footage showed had been destroyed by government soldiers. Ismail, standing amid the charred rubble, turned to Pronk and asked, "So where's the evidence?"

Around that time, the government also declared a coup had been launched, a claim largely viewed by diplomats as political theater. Officials held news conferences warning that if the United Nations imposed sanctions on Sudan, it could end up in chaos, becoming a failed state and even a threat to the war on terrorism.

"Taha has perfected the art of divide and confuse," said John Prendergast, an analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "He became the peacemaker in the south while he was the orchestrator of the counterinsurgency strategy in Darfur. Now he has attempted to make himself indispensable to the West on the peace process and counterterrorism."

Supporters of the government assert it has evolved with the needs of the country and is not to blame for defending itself in Darfur. But other observers say Sudanese officials have consistently outwitted international leaders while crushing political dissent at home.

It was the Bashir-Taha government that "introduced torture, executions, and deliberate targeting of civilians to stay in power and achieve its military objectives," said analyst Ted Dagne of the Congressional Research Service, speaking from Washington. "They are a political class that is here to stay."