Sudan's president is rallying support at home, seeking to show he can stand strong in the face of a possible international order for his arrest on charges of war crimes in Darfur. But many fear an arrest warrant could throw this deeply divided nation into turmoil.
New posters of President Omar al-Bashir line the airport road, proclaiming him the "people's choice" who won't be hurt by "conspiracies" like the warrant. Supporters _ from generals to mothers with newborns _ have been lining up at his palace and his visits around the country vowing to protect him.
The International Criminal Court plans to announce March 4 whether it will issue a warrant on charges that al-Bashir masterminded a campaign of murder, torture and rape by Sudan's army and Arab militias in Darfur, where Khartoum has been fighting ethnic African rebels since 2003.
The world's first permanent war crimes court has never issued a warrant against a sitting head of state, and if it does name al-Bashir no one is sure what might happen next in this nation with a history of civil wars and military coups.
Many worry Sudan's leadership would fear losing its grip on power and launch a violent backlash against opponents. That could worsen the bloodshed in the western Darfur region or wreck a fragile 4-year-old peace deal in the long-rebellious south, throwing the country back into civil war or even tearing it to pieces.
Some people talk of a coup against al-Bashir by rivals within the ruling elite. Others worry about retaliation against U.N. peacekeepers or international aid workers.
The government says al-Bashir won't deal with the Hague-based court, and it has made clear that any talk of him surrendering for trial won't be tolerated. The only politician who dared publicly urge that, senior opposition leader Hassan Turabi, has been detained for over a month.
U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur and southern Sudan do not have a mandate to serve an arrest warrant, so any international attempt to bring al-Bashir to trial would depend on diplomatic tools, perhaps including isolation of the government.
Playing down talk of a violent reaction, officials say Sudan will continue with business as usual unless there is an active attempt to arrest al-Bashir. They say the government will press ahead with Darfur peace efforts and with the ambitious project of reconciliation with the south, which includes presidential and parliament elections this year.
Khartoum is betting that if it shows seriousness on peace and democracy, prosecution of al-Bashir will fall by the wayside. A warrant "can be easily forgotten" if Sudan shows it is moving forward on these fronts, government spokesman Abdel-Attie Rabie said.
But analysts say that the ruling clique of military chiefs and Islamic fundamentalists feels deeply threatened by the court and that the hard-liners will lash out to preserve power.
"This is matter of destiny for Sudan. Sudan is on the verge of disintegration and collapsing if this is not resolved in a rational and national manner," said Haidar Ibrahim, who heads the Center for Sudanese Studies, a Khartoum-based independent think tank.
A warrant could play havoc with the ethnic and sectarian fault lines in Sudan, Africa's largest nation.
In particular, it could severely strain the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the Christian animist south and the Arab Muslim north. The deal gave southerners an autonomous government and the coming elections are supposed to give them a greater voice in national affairs. But many in the south still want independence.
Sudan's intelligence chief, Salah Abdallah Gosh, warned at a recent meeting with southern Sudanese officials that Khartoum could revert to more hard-line Islamist policies if there is a push to put al-Bashir on trial.
Anyone who tries to carry out the warrant will have his hands, limbs and head "chopped off," Gosh said in a clear warning to domestic opponents.
Khartoum has eased its hard-line implementation of Islamic law in recent years. But a return to a more fundamentalist state would heat up tensions with the south and likely fuel separatist sentiment.
A warrant could also throw into question the elections, further undermining the north-south peace, said Safwat Fanos, a political scientist at Khartoum University and member of the ruling party. If an indicted al-Bashir seek re-election, international monitors will refuse to participate, so southerners and others may reject the vote.
Moreover, al-Bashir cannot afford to lose the election, so he and his ruling NCP party would likely do anything to ensure victory.
"The ICC indictment can never disappear. So Omar al-Bashir will be wanted for the rest of his life," Fanos said. "Therefore the best guarantee for the president is to be the president."
Al-Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 coup, is also likely watching his allies, seeking to avoid the fate of Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia's Charles Taylor, two heads of state who were pushed from power while facing war crimes charges. The president's rallies appear to be aimed at gathering all factions around him to ensure no rival is encouraged to try to remove him.
Many Sudanese fear chaos if the warrant pushes al-Bashir out.
Al-Tayeb Abdul-Rahman, a 62-year-old bookseller in the capital, said it would be "humiliating" for the president to be changed because of a court order.
"We don't want this change. We are at a stage where we can't handle a new situation," he said.
(This version CORRECTS that Abdel-Attie Rabie is government spokesman instead of ruling party spokesman.)
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