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How Sudan plays cat and mouse with West

Leadership deflects pressure aimed at ending Darfur 'genocide.' Talks will resume this month.

In the sun-bleached deserts of Sudan, where the pharaohs of Egypt once ruled, politics is a secretive, tribal, and brutal sport.

So when an upstart general named Omar al-Bashir staged a coup in 1989 - the fourth since Sudan's independence in 1956 - few people figured this simple man from peasant stock would last very long. He was merely seen as the puppet of a brilliant Islamic cleric named Hassan al-Turabi.

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Some even called General Bashir lazy.

But suddenly, in 1999, Bashir was ousting Dr. Turabi from parliament and eventually throwing him in jail. It confirmed what close observers had said for years - that Bashir was far more astute, even wily, than he appeared.

Now, after 15 years in power, Bashir leads a tight-knit cadre of like-minded Islamists, who, many observers say, have been vastly underestimated again - this time by US and other Western diplomats trying to stop a genocide in Darfur, where up to 50,000 civilians have been killed by government-backed militias.

There have been, among other things, two UN Security Council resolutions on Darfur and pressure from Secretary of State Colin Powell, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in Sudan this week. But government-led attacks on civilians continue, the US says.

"I've consistently told Western diplomats, 'The government of Sudan is running rings around you and you don't even know it,' " says John Ashworth, editor of Sudan Focal Point, who's based in Pretoria, South Africa.

In a tacit admission of the UN's inability to stop what the US calls genocide, diplomats now hope a new 3,500-member force from the African Union can bring some stability to the Darfur region. But, at Sudan's insistence, they won't be able to intervene to protect the 1.2 million displaced civilians.

There's also general agreement that threatened UN sanctions against Sudan's leadership and its oil industry won't be implemented - partly because Sudan has rallied support from China, Russia, and the Arab world.

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Acknowledging this, America's UN Ambassador John Danforth said this week: "The focus now is on the African Union." AU-sponsored peace talks are scheduled to reconvene in Nigeria on Oct. 21.

One reason Sudan hasn't caved to Western pressure, observers say, is its willingness to wait out the storm. Its patience stems from a basic difference between Western and Sudanese politics. Westerners operate on four- or six-year election cycles. But in Sudan, politics spans the generations. Even at 15 years in power, Bashir is a newcomer. Other prominent figures, including Turabi, who was released from jail a year ago, have been in politics for decades. "They've got a very long-term view," says Mr. Ashworth.

That means that amid UN demands for fast improvement in Darfur, Sudan made small adjustments - for instance by letting in more humanitarian aid. But its leaders haven't changed their overall approach, which is to crush the Darfur rebellion that began in 2003 and sparked a harsh government response, leading to thousands of civilian deaths. Turabi apparently now supports the rebellion, which is one reason the regime views it as a mortal threat.

Another tactic for dealing with Western pressure includes an argument that goes like this: Don't punish us - by imposing sanctions or sending peacekeepers - or extreme hard-line elements in the regime will take control and make the situation worse. It's why, observers say, nations like France advocate cooperating with Sudan, not strong-arming it. Yet by most accounts, differing factions are unlikely to emerge.

"There is no ideological conflict in this regime," says Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer in the capital, Khartoum. He says Vice President Ali Osman Taha "doesn't sign a paper or move a general without talking to President Bashir." One hallmark of Bashir's rule has been his willingness to throw opponents in prison, thus ridding government of differing views.

Meanwhile, Sudan wouldn't be so successful, critics say, except that the US and world haven't been paying close enough attention to discern its wily tactics. The amount of diplomatic energy from the US - while substantial - hasn't been sufficient, they say. "The diplomatic community is only working part time on this, while Sudan's government is working overtime," says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group in Washington.

For months, the US has had no high-level diplomat in the capital. And one of the Bush administration's main point-men on Darfur, Roger Winter, has had health problems that keep him working shortened hours. As President Bush pointed out in last week's debate, however, the US is giving $200 million in aid to the Darfur crisis. And the Pentagon recently contracted with two private firms to give logistical support to the AU force, which is scheduled to be in place by the end of October.