As international pressure on Sudan to admit UN peacekeepers in Darfur appeared to flounder by mid-August, the US and Britain – the two main powers behind the scheme intensified their effort to break the resolve of president Omar Hassan al-Bashir (right) to resist their ill-disguised plot to prepare for the eventual separation of the Western region from the rest of Sudan. Britain, backed by the US, introduced a draft resolution in the Security Council which calls for the replacement of the African Union force in Darfur with UN peacekeepers who can cooperate with the UN force already in southern Sudan, which is now an autonomous region with the right to vote for secession after five years. But the ploy has succeeded only in hardeningKhartoum's opposition to the admission of a UN force, and in intensifying its public denunciation of both the US and Britain.
In a seemingly smart but transparent move, the draft resolution makes the despatch of a UN force to Darfur subject to acceptance by president Bashir. If he accepts, the African Union force will be transferred to the UN's authority by the end of September, with UN members providing additional transport and other logistical support that would increase its ability to move across a vast region – "the size of France", as Western journalists often say. But if he refuses, Britain will resubmit an amended version making his agreement irrelevant, according to unnamed UN officials and British diplomats quoted in various reports. The decision to make his acceptance essential was in the first place designed to increase the pressure on him to cooperate.
But president Bashir, who has been loud in his opposition to an international force, must have been expected to criticise the draft resolution – as, indeed, he did as soon as it was submitted – and to castigate the powers sponsoring it, especially Britain, Sudan's erstwhile colonial ruler. In a speech to a crowd in a provincial town south of Khartoum, the capital, on August 24 he said that "we will not allow Britain to recolonise Sudan" after it was thrown out in 1956. He added that he would expel the British ambassador from Khartoum if the Security Council voted to approve the draft resolution. Sudan forced "the Empire where the sun does not set" to "bow", and "we are prepared to compel it to do so once again," he said, adding that "we will not allow [Britain] to foul our land once more."
Bashir was not, of course, the only Sudanese leader expressing sharp criticism and anger at the draft resolution. Ghazi Salah Eldin Atabani, the chairman of the ruling National Congress Party, expressed a similar rejection of the resolution on the same day. The plan would "impose complete tutelage" on Sudan, he said.
But perhaps more significant than his angry attack on Britain – and by implication the US, its Western allies and the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan – was his castigation of the draft resolution soon after its submission to the Security Council. In a public speech on August 17, he put the issue in context, comparing it to the Israeli and US war on Lebanon and Palestine. "The enemy which the resistance in Palestine and Lebanon is faced with is the very same one the government is confronting in Darfur," he said.
Khartoum's opposition to the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Darfur – which Kofi Annan strongly supports – enjoys the backing of the Arab League, though it is not vociferously, nor often, expressed. The League also backs the expansion of the African Union force there, and calls for adequate funds and equipment to be provided to enable the AU force to carry out its functions effectively. But this backing has not discouraged the US or Britain from persisting in their determined demand on Khartoum to step down and accept the international peace force they advocate for Darfur. This is not surprising, as the US government is confident that Egypt and its other Arab allies will not help Khartoum to defy the plan, and accordingly has dismissed the Arab League's expressed backing for Bashir's position as harmless propaganda. It is in fact in Washington's interest that its allies are not seen as being bent on serving Uncle Sam in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which have become more radicalised in recent years.
However, the role of president Husni Mubarak of Egypt in putting pressure on Arab governments and leaders, including Bashir, to reach an understanding with Washington over any disputes they might have with it is widely known. Certainly his "mediation" between Washington and Khartoum over their current confrontation is no secret. This explains why the British draft resolution before the security council plays the game of leaving the acceptance of a UN presence in Darfur to Bashir.
More interestingly, it may explain the decision of president George W. Bush to send an envoy to Sudan soon after Bashir's aggressive rejection of the draft resolution. The envoy, an assistant secretary of state who is known to share Bush's conservative views, and who is therefore expected to be firm with Bashir, said that Bush hopes the Sudanese president will adopt the US's plan. Sending an envoy to Khartoum to discuss a plan he knows has already been criticised, and which is certain to be rejected, hopefully makes Bush seem reasonable, and Bashir too stubborn, in the eyes of the US's Arab and Muslim allies.
But two recent developments have strengthened Bashir's hand. The signature of one of the rebel movements in Darfur to a peace-plan with the government in Khartoum on May 5 has split up the rebel militias, which are now fighting each other instead of being united against the national army. The government of neighbouring Chad, which earlier admitted the rebel militias into its territory, and trained and funded them, has now signed an agreement with Khartoum to end its support. More dramatically, it has announced that it has arrested a large number of rebels and intends to hand them over to Sudan.
But Bush is bound to go ahead with his game of pretending to be the reasonable party to the conflict and Bashir the obdurate one. He might even feel more encouraged by the strong opposition in the country to the increases in the prices of oil, gas and sugar, which were imposed recently by the government. Opposition parties are united in their resolve to oppose them and to organise public demonstrations. More seriously, reports in the Arab media quote anonymous but informed sources to the effect that the majority of the ruling party's representatives in parliament are also vocally opposed to the price increases.
However, Bush is certain to ignore any agitation, no matter how huge, over the rise in fuel prices when it comes to the issue of international peacekeepers for Darfur. To climb down would be to weaken his own position, not only in Sudan but in other Muslim countries. The stage is therefore set for a collision over the UN draft resolution.