KHARTOUM, Sudan — President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan has been accused by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court of genocide and vilified the world over as an incorrigible mass murderer bent on slaughtering his own people in Darfur.
But inside Sudan, his grip on power seems, for the moment, to be surer than ever.
In the past few weeks, one sworn political enemy after another has closed ranks behind him. A result has been a swift and radical reordering of the fractious political universe in Sudan, driven in part by national pride but also by deep-seated fears that the nation could tumble into Somalia-like chaos if Mr. Bashir were removed as president.
The Sudanese government, joined by many of its onetime foes who see the court’s looming arrest warrant as a mortal threat to the country, is scrambling to determine exactly how much it needs to concede to survive.
One previously unthinkable proposal being discussed is whether the government should arrest two men accused of orchestrating the campaign of rape, murder and pillage in Darfur that has left about 300,000 dead and scattered 2.5 million people from villages reduced to circles of ash.
The two men, Ahmad Harun, the former interior minister, and Ali Kushayb, a militia leader, face arrest warrants issued by the international court for crimes against humanity.
But the government has refused to turn them over. Sudanese officials say they hope that putting the two men on trial in Sudan might persuade the United Nations Security Council to exercise its power to suspend the case against Mr. Bashir.
“Everything short of the presidency is on the table,” said Sudan’s foreign minister, Deng Alor.
Although the West has been relentlessly focused on Darfur, here in Sudan, most people view the crisis as simply a continuation of a long chain of internal conflicts between an autocratic government and the deeply impoverished people on the periphery. The deadliest of these conflicts, between the north and south, raged for decades, killing 2.2 million people — many more than the lives lost in Darfur — and threatened to split the country along religious lines.
Sudan has been at war with itself for almost its entire post-colonial history, starting in 1956. Nearly all of the major ethnic and religious groups have fought one another, and politics continue to be dominated by mistrust, outside interference and combustible animosities. There are dozens of armed groups across the country, each with its own political agenda.
One growing concern is that without Mr. Bashir, a peace treaty signed in 2005 between Sudan’s central government and southern rebels could fall apart. The treaty, which he fought hard-liners in his own party to approve, is widely seen as the glue that is holding this unwieldy and deeply divided country together. It calls for elections next year and outlines ways to share wealth and power.
“The situation in Sudan now is so pregnant with trouble,” said Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sudan’s last elected leader, who was overthrown by Mr. Bashir in 1989 and has remained a bitter opponent ever since. Until now.
After the warrant was announced, Mr. Mahdi threw the support of the party he leads, one of Sudan’s biggest, behind Mr. Bashir, at least for the moment.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the international criminal court, or I.C.C., has described Mr. Bashir as the mastermind of a genocide in Darfur. But here on the sun-blasted streets of Sudan’s capital, Mr. Bashir is widely perceived as a relative moderate.
“He is a pigeon, not a hawk,” said Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer who has been jailed 18 times by the Bashir government. Half of Mr. Suleiman’s face is paralyzed as a result of torture at the hands of the country’s notorious security forces. Nevertheless, he opposes any attempt to charge Mr. Bashir with war crimes now.
From the perspective of many Sudanese political leaders, the I.C.C. move could not have come at a worse time. A lightning-fast attack on the capital by a Darfur rebel group in May rattled the ruling National Congress Party. Hundreds of heavily armed rebels from an Islamist Darfur rebel faction thundered into the capital’s outskirts. They were repulsed, but the assault exposed gaps in the government’s aura of military invincibility.
“It just showed how the army is stretched to the limits,” said Ghazi Salah al-Din, a top adviser to Mr. Bashir, in a rare admission of vulnerability by a senior ruling party official. A week later, new fighting between the national army and a former rebel force in the disputed oil-rich area of Abyei forced more than 50,000 to flee and sparked fears of a new round of bloodletting.
“A lot of the political entities looked into the abyss and were scared,” said a senior Western diplomat in Khartoum, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized by his government to speak publicly.
A number of nightmare scenarios — an implosion of the government that might invite Al Qaeda back into Sudan or embolden rebel groups to try to topple the government — forced political elites in Sudan to choose sides. Most have chosen, for now, to stick with Mr. Bashir.
“These are frail and critical moments in our history,” said James Morgan, a spokesman for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the rebel group that signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending the north-south war. Mr. Bashir, he said, should be given “ample time to implement these agreements.”
The international court’s announcement also came as there were signs that the country was taking its first steps toward democracy after years of autocratic rule. The National Assembly had just passed a new electoral law, which would set up rules for the country’s first free elections in more than 20 years.
“The country was preparing itself for a new phase of government,” said Mr. Salah al-Din.
Mr. Salah al-Din acknowledged that “mistakes had been made in Darfur,” and said that the coming political transformation would, through elections, deal with the roots of the crisis — political marginalization.
The north-south war had always been viewed as the biggest threat to Sudan. But in 2003, as negotiations to end that conflict dragged on, a new rebel group rose up in Darfur to demand a greater share of wealth and power for the long-neglected western region. The government responded with the same ruthless tactics it used in the south, unleashing Arab militias to chase the rebels and their supporters from Darfur’s villages. The terror they caused aroused outrage across the world; the Bush administration called the killings genocide. The crisis came to dominate Western policy toward Sudan, often at the expense of the larger struggle to keep the north-south deal alive.
But diplomats, aid workers and analysts who have traveled to the region recently say things have changed in Darfur. The conflict has become a violent free-for-all in which a bewildering cast of rebels, bandits and militias murder each other and civilians largely unchecked by government authority.
“The government is brutal, untrustworthy and bloodthirsty, but the reality is that most of the violence in Darfur today is not caused by them,” the senior Western diplomat said. “Is there a genocide in Darfur right at this moment? No, there isn’t.”
Mr. Bashir’s tour of Darfur last week was short on proposals to jump start a peace process, but a panel led by Mr. Mahdi and other political leaders has been charged with finding a way to defuse the crisis. The government sent an official to Qatar to ask the government there, which helped negotiate a settlement to Lebanon’s most recent crisis, to contribute $500 million for the compensation of Darfur’s victims.
The government and its new allies are hoping that if they can provide evidence of progress in Darfur and persuade the international community that an arrest warrant would create more problems than it would solve, the Security Council will act to hold back the criminal court.
Not everyone agrees with this approach.
Salih Mahmoud Osman, a Darfur lawyer who has documented thousands of human rights violations in Darfur, said the court represented the only chance for victims to get justice. In a recent interview, he wept as he described the painful process of collecting testimony from rape victims. “They told us, ‘Our suffering must be documented,’ ” he said, hiding his face with his hands to cover his tears. “ ‘Our story is not forgotten. You are putting criminals on the record. If not today, tomorrow we will have justice.’ And now it has happened.”
In any case, Mr. Bashir’s newfound popularity among Sudan’s political elite is likely to be short lived. If the arrest warrant is issued, analysts and diplomats said, all bets are off. “He could end up very weak to challenges from inside and outside the ruling party,” a senior United Nations official in Khartoum said.
The government has responded so far to the court’s action with diplomacy and public relations, not violence. It has agreed to allow the delivery of hundreds of containers of United Nations supplies held up in Sudan’s port, and to make visas and permits for aid workers easier to get.
“We’ve been receiving very strong messages of cooperation” from the government, said Ameerah Haq, the top United Nations aid official in Sudan.
Mr. Alor, the foreign minister, said the threat of an arrest warrant may prove to be a blessing in disguise. “Now we are seriously talking about the resolution of the problem of Darfur,” he said, adding that the government was also considering ways to cooperate with the peacekeeping force in Darfur that it long resisted.
“If we take the I.C.C. from that angle, it can be a blessing for the whole country.”