Many of the Sudanese members of the legion were followers of the Madhist sect who engaged in subversive activities against the regime of Ja`far Nimeiri in the 1970s (Nimeiri was President of Sudan 1969-1985). Following their defeat in the aftermath of a failed coup in 1976, remnants of the Mahdists scattered in the border region between Sudan, Chad, and Libya. In the end, Gaddafi's hopes were dashed when the legion forces were defeated by Chadian factions in 1988.

Although the legion was subsequently disbanded, many of its members, well trained and armed, continued to embrace an Arab supremacist ideology. Some of the infamous Janjawid, who are currently committing many of the atrocities in Darfur, were members of the legion. Moreover, a large number of the Mahdists members of the legion had returned to the Sudan after the downfall of Nimeiri's regime in 1985.

In the late 1980s, these returnees formed a political block known as the Arab Alliance and began to disseminate supremacist ideology in the western parts of the Sudan and exhibited great contempt towards the non-Arab groups in the region.

Their propaganda involved the claim that the Arabic-speaking groups in the western parts of the Sudan had been politically and economically marginalized, despite the fact that they constitute the majority of the region's population. In addition to land ownership, the alliance called for increased representation of the Arabic-speaking groups in the central government. The attitude of these groups coupled with the policies of the central government has had a profound impact on inter-communal relationships in Darfur.

In tandem with external destabilizing forces from Chad and Libya (among others), the ongoing crisis in Darfur was also the result of events that took place in other parts of the Sudan, particularly the civil war between Southern and Northern Sudan, which resumed in the early 1980s.

The Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM, and its military wing the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA)), which led the rebellion in the South, presented itself as the defender of all marginalized groups in the country and raised the slogan of "New Sudan."

The SPLA made relentless efforts to recruit people from the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, the Blue Nile, and the Red Sea regions. Daoud Bolad, a Darfurian who was also a former student activist and member of the Islamicist movement, formed a small pro-SPLA faction in Darfur, but he was subsequently captured and killed by government troops. His 1992 death-by-torture dashed the hopes of the SPLA in Darfur.

Even without his death, however, the religious divide hampered the SPLA efforts in Darfur. While the majority of the SPLA members are Southern Christians, virtually all Darfurians are Muslims who were followers of either the Mahdist movement or the National Islamic Front.

Advent of the Islamicists

Perhaps one of the most important legacies of the SPLM on the political discourse in the Sudan is its call for building a "New Sudan." Embedded in this slogan is the idea of the creation of a secular, plural, and unified Sudan, in which there would be no distinction on the bases of religion, ethnicity, language, gender, and region.

The slogan was perceived as a threat by the dominant Arabic-speaking northern Sudanese elites. One of the most ardent defenders of Arabicism and Islamism as a paradigm of Sudanese identity is the National Islamic Front (NIF), whose main goal was the establishment of an Islamic state in the Sudan and beyond.

Hasan Turabi, the leader and main ideologue of NIF, had an ambitious scheme of spreading the Islamicist ideology in other parts of the Muslim world, particularly in Sahelian Africa. Turabi considered Darfur as the gateway to this region and made considerable efforts to recruit Darfurians into his movement.

From Turabi's perspective, in order to achieve these goals, the NIF had first to seize power in the Sudan. With this goal in mind, the NIF devoted its energies to building a strong economic base as well as expanding its membership among students, professionals, and most importantly, the Sudanese army.

The growing military and political strength of the SPLM in the late 1980s, and the prospects of the SPLA gaining a significant share in power, prompted the NIF to act. Using its considerable financial resources and influence in the army, the NIF staged a military coup in 1989 and overthrew the democratically elected government of Sadiq Al-Mahdi.

Once in power, the NIF embarked on grand scheme of transforming Sudanese state and society in accordance with its ideology. Thousands of people deemed secular were purged from the army, the civil service, and the police, while the regime's opponents were detained, tortured, or killed.

The NIF waged war in the South as "jihad" and pursued it with great vigor. The regime's human rights abuse, its efforts to destabilize neighboring countries, and its policies of harboring militant Islamicists from other parts of the Muslim world led to its international isolation. Western governments imposed sanctions, particularly the U.S. government, which placed Sudan on the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. At the same time, the NIF regime remained extremely unpopular among the Sudanese population as a result of its repression and the severe economic hardships.

In the face of growing isolation, the regime turned to China, which has become its major trading partner and main supplier of arms. The relationship was given further impetus by the production of oil, in which China became the dominant player.

The Peace Agreement with the South

A number of internal and external factors forced both the Sudanese government and the SPLA to enter into peace negotiations in 2003. Prominent among those were the inability of either party to achieve a decisive victory, the economic hardships and growing unpopularity of the Sudanese regime, a split within NIF, and the post-September 11 realities and the Bush Administration's "war on terror."

The peace negotiations were held in Kenya and were sponsored by the Internal Departmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African regional organization, European countries, the UN, and the U.S. government. In 2005 the two parties singed a peace accord that came to be known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

The CPA was hailed for ending the bloodshed and destruction that were raging in the South for several decades. However, the CPA was also criticized for its focus only on the North-South conflict and for ignoring the grievances of other marginal regions such as Darfur, the East, and other opposition groups. The failure of the Agreement to deal with all of the regional crises and tensions was one of the principal reasons behind the outbreak of the rebellion in Darfur.

In 2003, two rebel movements emerged in Darfur: the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).The leader of JEM is Khalil Ibrahim, who was a former member of the Islamicist movement, which led to speculations that JEM has Islamicist leanings. The SLA, on the other hand, is considered more secular in its orientation. The manifesto of both movements called for greater autonomy for Darfur and redistribution of economic resources and political power.

Violence in Darfur Begins and the World's Response

The spark that ignited the violence in Darfur occurred in April 2003 when the rebels attacked al-Fashir airport and destroyed military equipment and overwhelmed the Sudanese army. The attack took the government by surprise. From the beginning the government dismissed the rebel movement, describing them as nothing more than a band of armed robbers. At first, Khartoum could not mount an effective counter-offensive because its army was overstretched, particularly in the South.

Instead, the government resorted to the sort of unscrupulous tactics of proxy war that it had used in the South and in the Nuba Mountains. This involved the exploitation of ethnic differences and the arming of particular ethnic groups and turning them against others.

The use of this tactic in Darfur was best exemplified by the creation of the infamous Janjawid, most of whom hailed from Arabic-speaking communities (in western Sudanese context, Janjawid refers to rabble or outlaws). In conjunction with the Sudanese army, the Janjawid engaged in a massive campaign of violence and pillaging of non-Arab communities. The carnage resulted in the death of 300,000 Darfurians and the displacement of 2 million.

The scale of destruction outraged the international community and prompted the U.S. government to describe it as "genocide." However, the rhetoric of the international community was not matched by actions.

Both the U.S. and European governments were not willing to intervene militarily and could not develop a coherent policy towards the Sudan. The UN issued a number of threats and passed a series of resolutions. But these were rendered ineffective by the defiance of the Sudanese governments, and the maneuvering of Arab countries and of China, Sudan's main oil-trading partner and supplier of arms.

The most important bone of contention is the deployment of peacekeepers in Darfur. The Sudanese government declared its objection to the presence of any European troops on its soil and maintained that it would only allow African Union peacekeepers.

As a compromise, the UN passed a resolution in 2007 that provided for the creation of the so-called "hybrid force," or a mixture of UN and African Union troops, to which the Sudan government agreed. However, the deployment of these troops has been hampered by a lack of funds, complicated logistics, and the foot-dragging of the Sudanese government.

On another level, the UN referred the Darfur case to the International Court of Criminal Justice to investigate accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity committed by the Sudanese government. Although two Sudanese officials were indicted, the Sudanese government vowed not to hand them over.

However, in a dramatic move, the court declared in July 2007 that it is seeking a warrant for the arrest of Omer Al-Bashir, the Sudanese President. A ruling is expected in the near future. It is unclear what will happen if an arrest warrant is issued and how that will affect the situation in Darfur. While some observers think that it may prompt the Sudanese government to suspend all UN operations and thereby worsen the humanitarian situation, others believe that the warrant might actually increase the pressure on the Sudanese government and force it to take the peace process more seriously.

Darfur Peace Process

After a great deal of pressure by the UN, the African Union, and the neighboring countries, the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels agreed to hold a series of peace talks in Nigeria, which led to the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in 2006. However, the agreement was signed by only one rebel group and was rejected by the rest who argued that the DPA was a bad deal for Darfur.

The major obstacles to reaching a settlement can be attributed to both the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels.

The Sudanese government is notorious for using agreements as a mere tactic. It is willing to sign any agreement, but determined to find ways to impede or delay its implementation.

Darfur rebels, on the other hand, are highly divided and have no clear vision. It was estimated that there are currently more than a dozen rebel groups who are competing among each other, a situation that has lead to chaotic violence in the region. Efforts to unify the rebels have been hindered by the strategy of the Sudanese government of divide and rule, and by the intervention of foreign governments such as Chad, Libya, and Eritrea.

Most importantly, the Darfur rebels have become part of the proxy war between the Sudanese and the Chadian governments. For instance, in February 2008 the Chadian opposition, with the help of the Sudanese government, tried to overthrow the government of Idris Deby. As a quid pro quo, Chad supported the Justice and Equality Movement's daring attack on the Sudanese capital three months later.

The current situation in Darfur does not allow for much optimism. The peace process is frustrated by the foot-dragging of the Sudanese government, the fragmentation of the rebels, and the lack of a strong resolve by the international community. The fate of the Darfur peace process may well be determined by the outcome of the ICC decision on Bashir, the general elections scheduled for 2009, and the deteriorating situation in the border region between northern and southern Sudan. In the meantime, the turmoil continues with no end in sight.