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Sudanese president’s power to be tested

His image shining on billboards promising highways, schools and wealth, President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir takes credit for all that glitters, turning oil money into skyscrapers that rise above his palace in this sweltering capital.

Khartoum reflects his aspirations to add a splash of Dubai-inspired architectural panache to an African nation long troubled by famine and war. But the skyline here glimmers only so far; beyond it looms widespread poverty, bloodshed in Darfur and the prospect that in January the mainly Christian south will secede, robbing Bashir of the oil reserves the Islamic north craves.

A proud man easily angered, the president smiles at Chinese investors but recently threatened to cut the fingers off election monitors. The International Criminal Court wants to try him on charges of war crimes in Darfur, accusations Bashir brushes aside as if they’re mosquitoes buzzing along the Nile.

His power rests with the army; his political instincts shrewdly divide and intimidate his enemies, including onetime ally Hassan Turabi, an opposition chief who was reportedly arrested last week.

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Few world leaders want to be caught shaking Bashir’s hand, but at home, where international condemnation carries little influence, the president represents a degree of stability.

That may seem odd: Peace talks in Darfur have broken down, and Bashir is widely distrusted. Yet the 66-year-old former paratrooper has skirted U.S.-backed sanctions and kept an anxious peace with the semiautonomous south. Many Sudanese, whether they revile or love him, don’t see a stronger personality on the horizon.

“The question is, what is the alternative?” said Hassan Maki, vice chancellor of the African International University in Khartoum. “The opposition is made up of old people approaching the graveyard.”

Bashir, a farmer’s son who often waves his trademark walking stick, won reelection last month in a poll regarded internationally as marred by fraud. But among his supporters, the outcome gave a sense of legitimacy to the president and his ruling National Congress Party. Bashir will need that in coming months as he faces the economic and political consequences of an independent south, which fought a two-decade civil war with the north that left more than 2 million people dead.

The president has promised he will honor the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which controls the south’s government. That would finally dash his dream of unity and possibly trigger other separatist movements. It may also mean that the south, home to most of Sudan’s oil reserves, could deprive the north of billions of dollars a year in development.

Under the peace agreement, north and south share oil revenue. Oil is pumped from southern fields and transported through a northern-controlled pipeline that stretches to Port Sudan. If this scenario holds, the south will pay the north taxes and shipping fees. That may be enough for Bashir. But a final agreement has not been negotiated, and some analysts predict that the president, who seized power in a 1989 coup, will not allow southern oil wells to slip further from his grasp.

“The NCP is a fascist party and it will never give up the south,” said Alhaj Warag, an editor at the newspaper Ajras Al-Hurriya. “The tragedy is that war is inevitable.”

Oil has changed Khartoum’s fortunes and made Bashir one of China’s best friends. Beijing owns 40% of Sudan’s Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co., based in Khartoum; Chinese contractors and engineers have fanned out across the country to work on water, road and other infrastructure projects. In return, Bashir’s government has bought from Beijing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including tanks and fighter jets, to keep him in power.

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“U.S. sanctions are pushing Sudan toward China,” university official Maki said. “The Chinese have become great beneficiaries of U.S. policy.”

If sanctions continue for years and oil revenue slackens, however, Khartoum’s building boom and economic growth may diminish and upset the balance of power.

“Many Islamist businessmen need normalization with the international community, especially the U.S. and Europe,” Warag said. “They know that Bashir is a burden. He’s blocking this. But these same businessmen like Bashir because he keeps out Western values and allows them to act without transparency.”

How Bashir, who perpetually switches between a white turban and a military man’s hat, navigates the oil conundrum and the likelihood of an independent south could affect the stability of Sudan’s neighbors.

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Opposition parties and human rights groups criticized the U.S. for accepting the outcome of last month’s Sudanese elections, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington was facing a complicated situation.

“The United States could back off and say, ‘We won’t deal with these people. We’re not going to have anything to do with them. Bashir is a war criminal,’” Clinton said recently. “I don’t think that will improve the situation. So along with our partners … we are trying to manage what is a very explosive problem.”

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alsanosi Ahmed in Khartoum contributed to this report.

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