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What's behind the Darfur crisis - and what's next?

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Thursday is a pivotal day for the government of Sudan. The United Nations Security Council begins debate on whether Khartoum has disarmed and brought to justice the Arab militias in the western part of the country responsible for killing more than 30,000 people and causing some 1.4 million others to flee their homes over the past 18 months. The penalty for noncompliance: economic and diplomatic sanctions.

The UN's mission to Sudan, finishing its fact-finding work in Darfur last week, says that security has improved inside the camps and aid supplies are slowly reaching the camps. Still, some 75 villagers were reportedly killed in six separate attacks last week.

Critics have condemned the international community's slow response to the situation. But there are many factors at play. Western troops "invading" an Islamic country, even for humanitarian reasons, may be politically impossible after Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the Security Council like Russia and China have business interests in Sudan. Then there's the question of genocide: The UN has yet to define the Darfur situation as such, which would, by international law, require members to act.

If the solution seems complex, the roots of the problem are perhaps more so.

Who's fighting whom?

The conflict in Darfur, three provinces in western Sudan, is usually cast in terms of Arabs vs. black Africans, but the reality is more muddled. Nearly everyone in the region is Muslim, and the skin color of the Arabs and non-Arabs is often indistinguishable. The distinction between the two groups falls mainly on their occupations: farmers and nomadic herders.

According to Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring group, the farmers are generally non-Arabs, or ethnic Africans. They live and farm in the central part of the region. The pastoralists, who reside in the north, are largely of Arab descent. They are nomadic and seminomadic and herd camels by trade.

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