KHARTOUM, SUDAN — KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Sudan is dogged by famine and civil war, the distrust of the world and an economy that is bankrupt. And this month it ran out of gas.
So why is the leader of this country smiling, describing Sudan as an "inspiration" for other Islamic countries?
Hassan al-Turabi, a 60-year-old Muslim philosopher educated in London and Paris, clearly relishes thumbing his nose at the West, which he blames for spreading lies about Sudan.
"The problems are exaggerated," says Mr. Turabi, a slight man swathed in white, gauzy robes and headdress, with a short-cropped gray beard.
The empty streets of the capital, filled only with the drifting desert sand and the few overloaded buses that still had fuel, belie his claim. People here do not believe it.
"Our stupid government has made Sudan into an island," said an angry Khartoum resident, willing to speak out but too wary to give his name.
For a decade, Sudan has squandered its sustenance on fighting. A long civil war and tribal attacks have bred such chaos that the huge country, once viewed as a breadbasket for Africa, now depends on the world's conscience to relieve widespread starvation.
Sudan has no credit and few friends. Its only allies, Iran, Iraq and Libya, give Sudan weapons for its soldiers but not gasoline or food.
While its people starve in the south, the government pursues Islamic politics that further earn the enmity of the world. It is accused of encouraging terrorism, trampling human rights, and -- until recently -- frustrating attempts to combat the famine in the non-Muslim south.
The United States has warned Sudan against allowing itself to be a base for terrorists. Sudan's neighbors are equally wary: Algeria and Egypt have accused it of fomenting unrest in their countries.
And the United Nations voted overwhelmingly in December to condemn Sudan's human rights record, which includes alleged atrocities, torture and political imprisonment.
"They have made no bones about their belief that their brand of Islam is going to triumph," a Western diplomat in Khartoum said. "There are a lot of unsavory people here who are up to no good."
Sudan's government contends it is a scapegoat for the West's fear of Islam.
"The West is trying to victimize Sudan and ostracize it," said Ghazi Salahuddin al-Atabani, a top government minister. "Our ideas are not very likable to the West. Sudan represents a model of a rebel country."
But Sudan is really two very different places: Southern Sudan, where men still practice ritualized scarring of their faces and greet each other in the round, friendly vowels of Swahili, is African. Many have accepted Christianity from missionaries; others practice traditional animist religions.
The north, including Khartoum, is Arab. Its daily language and rituals are Arabic, and its attention is drawn more to the Middle East than to other countries on its own continent. It is overwhelmingly Muslim.
Since independence in 1956, six governments ranging from democracies to dictatorships have tried to stitch together the disparate regions.
The current government, which has promised to impose Islamic law, has offered the south some autonomy but is loath to surrender the south's potential oil and agricultural riches to secession.
"We want to maintain the integrity of the country," Mr. al-Atabani said. The British colonialists who lumped north and south into one country "left us with a time bomb," he said. "It is a problem that must be solved by a political solution."
The south has long felt oppressed by the "Arabs" of the north, and it rejects any compromise that leaves Khartoum with control.
"Why should we spill blood for a united Sudan? The north is a different culture, a different religion," John Luk, an official of the rebel movement, said in Nairobi, Kenya.
In recent months, international pressure has prompted the government and the rebels to agree on a temporary cease-fire. But the rebels themselves are split, and the largest faction, controlled by John Garang, has used the lull to attack its opponents in an effort to gain control of territory along the east bank of the White Nile.
This fighting among the rebels has caused frequent interruptions in relief efforts in large sections of the south and increased civilians' misery.
It also has allowed the government to claim the high moral ground. With an exceptionally good sorghum and wheat harvest this year in the north, the government has offered free grain for relief operations and has opened corridors to transport the aid as far south as the rebels will allow.
"The government is more cooperative now than ever before," said Georgio Maragliano, who heads the U.N. World Food Program in Khartoum.
Donald Petterson, the U.S. ambassador in Khartoum, agrees, up to a point. "Things are better," he said. "But certain areas are closed off, and bureaucratic obstacles have been raised."
The Sudanese government's new-found cooperation is an indication of its own economic desperation. Western economic aid to the country has dried up. The World Bank has cut off lending to Sudan because the country has fallen behind in payments on the $1.142 billion it already owes.
Inflation is said to be more than 100 percent a year, income from exports is dropping, and agricultural projects are shrinking. Sudan ran out of gasoline this month because the government could not scrounge up enough hard currency to pay for a shipload of oil.
"The country is effectively bankrupt," an economic analyst said. "They just don't have a sign on the door."
Sudan's isolation was illustrated ever more sharply by two events in December. The United Nations condemned human rights abuses in Sudan, with only six nations -- including Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Myanmar -- voting against. The same day, U.S. Marines landed in Somalia to help feed starving people there.
"I think the actual arrival of the U.S. troops on the beaches came as a tremendous shock. They could see the same thing happening here," a Western diplomat in Khartoum said.
Moderates apparently are trying to lead the Sudanese government out of its corner by encouraging better relations with the West.
"In the last five months, they've really made an all-out effort to gain friends," a relief official said.
"We want to build a bridge," said Abdul Aziz Shiddo, Sudan's justice minister and for 20 years the lawyer for the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.
Charitable observers say the current government is less corrupt than previous ones.
It has not undertaken its Islamic agenda with the fanaticism of the Iranians. For example, women drive cars and mingle freely with men. Although they dress more conservatively than they used to, women wear jewelry and prefer bright African colors to the somber black veils of Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Sudan's leaders chafe at the West's complaints about human rights violations.
"Americans don't know much about the world," said Mr. al-Turabi, who holds no title but is the acknowledged leader behind the military government of Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed el-Bashir. "If someone tells them something, they publish it. There are no massacres. These are just tribal fights. It's not serious."
Republic of the Sudan
Population: 27 million
Area: 966,757 square miles. (Largest country in Africa, more than a quarter the size of the United States).Ethnic groups: black 52%; Arab, 39%, Beja 6%
Religion: Sunni Muslim: 70%; animist, 18%; Christian 5%
Government: military, headed by Prime Minister Gen. Omar al-Bashir, although the ruling influence is the National Islamic Front, headed by Hassan al-Turabi, who holds no title.
Chronology of events
Sudan was ruled by Egyptians in ancient times and the ties between the two countries were strong for centuries.
century: country converted to Coptic Christianity.
15th century: Arab immigration brought Islam.
1820s: Egypt's Mohammad Ali Pashi took over Sudan to get gold and slaves.
1880s: Revolt against Anglo-Egyptian administration led by Mohamed Ahmed, seen as a messianic figure called the Mahdi (leader of the faithful) and his followers, the dervishes.
1898: Anglo-Egyptian force crushes Mahdi's successors
1951: Egyptian parliament grants Sudan a constitution ofits own.
1956: Sudan gains complete independence.
1969: Socialist leaning Revolutionary Council takes powerunder Gaafar Nimery.
1972: Peace agreement with rebel factions gives southautonomy and promises end to years of civil war
Discontent with regime reignites North-South civilwar.
1985: President Nimery over thrown in bloodless military coup.
1986: Sudan holds first democratic elections.
1989: Elected government overthrown by present Islamicfundamentalist rulers; civil war accelerates.
1991: Sudan agrees to allow large-scale relief efforts tohelp estimated 4 million in danger of starvation.
1992: U.N. suspends aid to some areas of southern Sudanbecause of fighting. Two local employees of U.S. AID executed by governmment as spies.Three relief workers and a journalist killed by rebels in the south.
1993: Aid resumes to many areas, but still interrupted byfighting among rebel factions.