KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Musa Hilal sauntered into the lobby of a downtown hotel. Jittery eyes followed the statuesque, copper-skinned man as he settled into an armchair. He had recently been accused by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and others of leading the marauding militia that has plunged the Darfur region of western Sudan into the world's most desperate humanitarian crisis.
But Hilal has a different story. In a rare interview last week, he said the crisis had been exaggerated and offered to give a tour of the vast region where he had spent most of his life. "I'm a big sheik," he said. "Not a little sheik."
Musa Hilal says he is a defender of Sudanese Arabs against African rebels.
(Evelyn Hockstein For The Washington Post)
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
Sudanese Decry U.N. Threat of Sanctions (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)
U.N. Puts Sudan Sanctions Into Play (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
Death Rates in Darfur Rising, WHO Says (The Washington Post, Sep 15, 2004)
U.S. Calls Killings In Sudan Genocide (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2004)
U.S. Drafts Resolution On Sudan Sanctions (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2004)
Hilal is accused of being a commander of the Janjaweed militia. According to human rights groups, aid workers and U.S. officials, the militia, supported by Sudan's government, has displaced 1.2 million people in Darfur through violence and pillage. What was once a lively crossroads between Africa and the Arab world has become a tableau of hunger, disease and fear.
U.S. officials have pressed the Sudanese government to end its support for the Janjaweed and hold Hilal and six other commanders accountable for the crisis. Powell, in a visit to the region last month, urged the government to disarm the militia and halt the violence.
But just days after Powell's trip, and a similar visit by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Hilal sat in plain sight here in the capital, sipping mango juice and joking about his three wives and 13 children as he wound and unwound a lilac scarf around his back and shoulders.
The story of Hilal illustrates the complex relationship between the Janjaweed and Sudan's Arab-led government, which recently promised to rein in the militia but has not. The Janjaweed and its commanders continue to operate freely in Darfur, and many of its fighters have also joined the government's official army.
Hilal said the Janjaweed fighters "are soldiers now and their faith is with the government." Asked whether he would heed calls to disarm, he said, "Whenever we feel the situation is completely secure and the cease-fire is being respected we will hand in our weapons." He added, "Whenever the government undertakes to hand in weapons from all factions and tribes, we will hand in arms."
Hilal portrayed himself as a defender of Arab tribes against African groups, dismissing claims that the Janjaweed have engaged in ethnic cleansing. "No one can wipe out an ethnicity," he said.
Darfur has long been home to Arab herders and African farmers, two Sudanese groups that were both Muslim, shared resources and sometimes intermarried. Clashes occurred sporadically, but tensions grew more serious 25 years ago as drought spread over the continent and the Arabs began to search for better grazing land.
Hilal's family was among those Arabs looking for more fertile areas. In 1976, Hilal's father moved his tribe to Amo, an area in northern Darfur where African tribes already lived, according to an investigation by the Congressional Research Service this year. The inquiry found that Hilal's father obtained the land through a corrupt official.
In 1997, Hilal was jailed for killing 17 Africans in Darfur, according to the inquiry. Years earlier, he had also been imprisoned for killing a security guard and robbing a bank in Nyala, a city in southern Darfur.
The tensions in Darfur exploded in early 2003. African rebels, saying that the Arab-led government in Khartoum had discriminated against them, attacked a military garrison. They destroyed four helicopter gunships, two Antonov aircraft and, according to government officials, killed about 75 soldiers.
At the time, the government was negotiating a settlement in a separate conflict, the country's 21-year civil war in the southern part of Sudan. Officials apparently wanted to send a strong message to other rebellious parts of country, including Darfur, that they would not give in.
The government had two main concerns about fighting the rebels in Darfur. Its forces were already stretched thin by conflicts in other areas, and at least 40 percent of the army was made up of soldiers from Darfur who might not want to fight against their own tribes.