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Government showdown imminent in Sudan. Public pressure to resolve religious debate, end war may force Mahdi's hand

Religion vs. peace. A showdown over this choice appears to be drawing rapidly near in Sudan. Yesterday's government declaration of an unusual ``security and defense'' state of emergency in Khartoum, the nation's capital, amidst reports of an attempted coup, may have been aimed at postponing this confrontation.

The debate is over how to end a devastating 5-year-old civil war between the northern Muslim government and the southern-based rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, who are mostly Christian or animist black Africans.

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A proposed cease-fire accord now before the government calls for ending the fighting in exchange for temporarily setting aside Islamic laws - a deal that Muslim fundamentalists are staunchly opposed to making.

The declaration of emergency came less than 24 hours before a large-scale peace march was planned by a wide variety of political forces. They want to pressure the government into approving the proposed cease-fire.

The would-be marchers, many of whom are Muslim, say they are willing to set aside Islamic laws in order to have peace.

But the head of the nation's Muslim party, Hassan al-Turabi, is not willing to agree to such a deal. And it is Mr. Turabi, acting as attorney general, who declared the emergency for Khartoum.

In so doing, he may have blocked the march and neutralized the pressure it might have put on the Sudanese parliament to adopt the cease-fire. Those behind the planned march make up the same informal network of trade unionists, intellectuals, and farmers which helped to pull down the dictatorship of Gen. Jafaar Nimeiry in 1985 by means of massive marches.

Some Sudanese politicians are reported to have said they think the emergency was declared to stop the peace march. Turabi denies this.

Minister of Defense Abdel Magid Hamid Khalil reportedly said yesterday that the declaration of a state of emergency was warranted by events. He would not elaborate.

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Debate on the cease-fire by the parliament, the Constituent Assembly, was scheduled for Monday but postponed until yesterday, averting a confrontational vote.

Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi has steadfastly ducked putting the accord to a vote since it was proposed last month, in order to avoid a clash with Turabi's small but well-organized party, the National Islamic Front (NIF).

But now rebel leader John Garang reportedly is insisting on a vote in order to proceed with implementation of the cease-fire.

The accord was drafted last month by Mr. Garang and the leader of Sudan's second most powerful party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

``It's time for a real confrontation,'' one Sudanese official said yesterday after the emergency was announced. ``We're very close. The whole future of [Mr. Mahdi] depends on what happens in the next few days,'' he told the Monitor.

It was not clear at press time whether today's march would be called off. Police have been given sweeping powers of arrest under the emergency and road blocks have been set up at various points in the city.

A senior military officer reportedly confirmed that there was an attempted military coup Dec. 8. One report said several retired Army officers and politicians allegedly linked with General Nimeiry have been arrested.

There was no government confirmation of another attempted coup last weekend that was reported by local newspapers in Khartoum.

But whatever the substance of the reported coups, it is clear from interviews with a variety of political leaders last week in Khartoum that impatience is mounting on all sides over the conflict between religion and peace.

``I think there is growing tension between the two [sides] regardless of what parties they belong to,'' the Sudanese official said.

Mahdi ``is trying to please everybody,'' this official said.

In the process, he is displeasing many people, political and other leaders in Sudan said last week.

Mahdi's departure has become ``inevitable,'' said Mohamed Awad Elkarim, organizer of the march planned for today. ``It's going to happen,'' he said in an interview.

Mr. Elkarim heads the National Alliance for the Salvation of Sudan, the organization behind the planned march and a series of planned, one-day strikes.

He says he only wants to force Mahdi to put the cease- fire to a vote. The problem, Elkarim says, is that if the Alliance puts too much pressure on Mahdi, the military may attempt to take over. ``You never know if we'll get someone like Nimeiry,'' he said, referring to the exiled former dictator who some Sudanese political leaders say still harbors hopes of returning to power.

The military may not want to take over, given the problems Sudan faces. Individuals within the military, however, may be feel forced by the continuing loss of soldiers in the war and a deteriorating economy to take a chance at straightening things out.

Sudan is one of Africa's few multi-party democracies. The prime minister heads a coalition government composed of his Hizb al-Umma Party (Umma), the DUP, the NIF, and some smaller southern-based parties.

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