IN a Spartan compound full of soldiers, which lies on the southeastern edge of Sudan, an African tribal snake is painted on the wall of a bare mud hut.
Inside the hut, almost alone on the commander's desk, there is a Good News Bible with gold embossed lettering on the cover.
It is here, in this "office," that Comdr. Riek Machar holds court, though the close proximity of the snake and Bible - both tokens of southern Sudanese spiritual strength - will be needed if he is to win his fight against both a rival faction in the south and the northern Muslim forces of Khartoum, Sudan's capital.
For eight years, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has fought the imposition of Islamic sharia (religious law) by the Arab north of Sudan on the Christian and animist, African south. But last August, the rebels split into two rival groups.
Commander Riek leads the new "Nasir faction" of the SPLA, which in August accused Col. John Garang - who had led the SPLA from its birth in 1983 - of waging a dictatorial reign of terror within the organization.
Since then, Riek and his ragtag half of the SPLA, which controls 35 percent of rebel-held southern Sudan, have fought from this isolated base for the south to form an independent state.
But the political situation seems to have changed: The military regime in Khartoum announced in December that it had been in contact with Riek's faction and supported it against its rival led by Colonel Garang.
"They see a common enemy in Garang," says a Western observer who knows both SPLA factions well. "But Riek is very intelligent, he is just using Khartoum to finish Garang."