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Indictment is biggest test for Sudanese leader
A Sudanese supporter of President Omar al-Bashir, who had genocide charges filed against him at the International Criminal Court, raises a poster with his picture and Arabic slogan reading " Bashir is us" during a rally in Khartoum, Sudan, Friday, July 18, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    KHARTOUM, Sudan — President Omar al-Bashir’s indictment on Darfur genocide charges presents the Sudanese leader with the most serious challenge to his 19-year rule, raising questions about his legitimacy that could weaken his grip on power.
    Al-Bashir is not new to threats to his Islamist regime, which has over the years built a reputation for dealing with disputes with a deft mix of brutality and political acumen.
    But analysts say the danger this time is personal as he faces an international bid to remove him from power.
    International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s July 14 indictment — the first against a sitting head of state — already has rattled the soldier-turned-political leader with a reputation as a survivor.
    Unless a compromise is found, the indictment could lead to political instability that will be exploited by the president’s rivals, analysts say.
    Moreno-Ocampo filed 10 charges against al-Bashir for masterminding a campaign of extermination and rape specifically targeting three Darfur tribes. The U.N. says about 300,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been uprooted over the past five years.
    The charges include three counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes.
    Hassan Haj Ali, a political scientist at Khartoum University, says the charges pose a threat to the entire country, not just al-Bashir’s government, and may eventually create a dangerous power vacuum at the top of Sudan’s political hierarchy.
    ‘‘This vacuum may prove to be too tempting for some to take advantage of and move to seize power,’’ Ali said.
    Other analysts say the impact of the indictment has compounded al-Bashir’s recent woes, such as the security lapses that were exposed two months ago during a highly symbolic attack on a Khartoum suburb by Darfur rebels. There is also a growing fear that the country could break up when the mainly animist and Christian south votes in 2011 on whether to remain part of Africa’s largest nation.
    Since seizing power in a 1989 military coup, al-Bashir’s regime has been driven repeatedly to the brink of collapse. At least two coup attempts, a civil war in the south, cross-border attacks by armies from neighboring countries, a U.S. cruise missile attack in 1998 and U.N. sanctions are among the threats he has faced.
    Al-Bashir’s troubles in the remote, western Darfur region began in 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government, which is accused of backing Arab militia fighters known as the janjaweed. The janjaweed responded with a punishing campaign that wiped out entire villages.
    President Bush last year accused al-Bashir’s regime of complicity in genocide in Darfur.
    Moreno-Ocampo’s indictment was coupled with a request to the court to issue an arrest warrant for al-Bashir. But it will be months before a panel of judges decides on that request.
    The fallout from last week’s indictment already is felt in Khartoum, where a series of pro-government demonstrations were mostly organized by al-Bashir’s ruling party and loyalists.
    Still analysts say it would be premature to start a countdown for al-Bashir’s departure.
    The Movement for Justice and Equality, or JEM, the Darfur rebel group that staged the May 10 attack on Khartoum, already is talking about the government’s ‘‘erosion of legitimacy’’ and is calling on the country’s political forces to act to prevent a slide into chaos.
    ‘‘It is a duty of all to act courageously in order to preserve national, regional and international agreements that are crucial for maintaining peace and stability in the country,’’ JEM said this weekend in statement posted on its Web site that called for the immediate formation of a national unity government.
    The JEM is a well-armed group linked to neighboring Chad — for decades an off-and-on enemy of Sudan. It took government forces by surprise in May, attacking a Khartoum suburb in daylight after driving all night undetected across the barren desert of central Sudan.
    The attack was doomed from the start given the large number of government forces deployed in and around the capital, but it seriously embarrassed a regime whose strength has traditionally come from its military capabilities.
    ‘‘The psychological impact of that attack has been deep,’’ said Haidar Ibrahim, who heads the Center for Sudanese Studies, a Khartoum-based independent think tank. ‘‘It dented the prestige of the regime and the perception of it as being the protector of the people.’’
    Al-Bashir had for years looked to the army as his most reliable power base. More recently, however, that base has partly shifted to paramilitary forces in charge of internal security and loyal militias.
    His market reforms, which revived Sudan’s moribund economy but have hit middle-class Sudanese hard, handed him another source of support — a new but powerful class of businessmen that many Sudanese complain are mostly Islamists loyal to al-Bashir or relatives of senior officials.
    It is difficult to gauge how much popular support al-Bashir enjoys in Sudan — the government reintroduced media censorship this year. But the tidal wave of condemnations against the indictment and the ICC by top regime officials and the pro-government media mirrors the regime’s deep concern over the charges.
    ‘‘A warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest will create much confusion, both politically and on the streets,’’ said Mohammed al-Abbas, a retired army major-general. ‘‘But this is still a tribal society. So, forget about anyone handing him over.’’

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