Arabs Seek Role With Darfur Rebels

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

N'DJAMENA, Chad, Aug. 21 -- To the dozen or so Darfur rebel groups attempting to unite ahead of possible negotiations with the Sudanese government, add one more: the United Revolutionary Force Front, a nascent movement that says it represents nomadic Arab tribes that have been unfairly associated with the conflict's notorious government-backed militias known as the Janjaweed.

"We want to make an agreement between Arab and non-Arab people to be one," the movement's spokesman, al-Hadi Agabeldour, said in an interview here. "If negotiations begin and our group is not participating, the negotiations are not completed."

The four-year-old conflict between the Sudanese government and rebels in the country's western region of Darfur has killed at least 400,000 people and displaced 2.5 million more, international experts say.

In the dominant pattern of the violence, Sudan's Arab-led government has armed the region's nomadic Arab tribes to carry out attacks against non-Arab farming communities, which form the popular base of the rebellion.

But the conflict has always been far more intricate than that. Plenty of nomadic tribal leaders have refused to take part in the Janjaweed militias, in many cases becoming victims themselves, as traditional migration routes have been cut off, economic relationships severed and tribal conflicts heightened by the proliferation of weapons.

In that context, the United Revolutionary Force Front represents what experts say is growing disillusionment with the Sudanese government among Darfur's Arab communities, a development that is potentially damaging for the Khartoum government, which has relied on Arab support, or at least neutrality, in the conflict.

"Over the last year there have been various developments indicating that Arab groups are becoming less and less happy with Khartoum," said Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who has written extensively on the conflict. "Because what has Khartoum given the Arab people as a whole? They've given Janjaweed money and weapons. But that does not really benefit the Arab population as a whole."

It is not surprising, Reeves said, that a group such as the United Revolutionary Force Front has emerged to stake a claim to that sort of disaffection, particularly given recent developments in the conflict.

Sudan recently agreed to the deployment of a 26,000-strong joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force, which will absorb a 7,000-member A.U. force that has failed to stop the violence.

That impending deployment, along with signals that the Sudanese government and the rebels could enter into negotiations soon, has set off jockeying for position among Darfur's various rebel groups.

The rebels have been accused of contributing to widespread banditry across the largely roadless region, where power is often measured by the number of Land Cruisers in one's possession.

The Sudanese government, meanwhile, has continued its campaign to crush them. On Tuesday, government forces surrounded one of Darfur's most volatile camps, Kalma, to force out rebels that government officials contend are behind a spate of attacks on police there, the Reuters news agency reported.

Agabeldour declined to comment on the strength of his group's force on the ground, but he listed several military campaigns in recent months against the Sudanese government.

He said the group was founded by students at the University of Khartoum in 1999 and tried to join one of Darfur's main rebel groups in recent years, but was rejected because rebel leaders suspected its members might be spies.

"We decided if we don't take up weapons, the government will not listen," he said. "We are a new generation, and we know our rights. The government has fabricated this conflict between groups. This should not be an Arab versus non-Arab conflict."

Agabeldour said the group, whose logo is a sword crossed with a ballpoint pen, has written letters to the United Nations, the European Union and the U.S. government explaining its cause.

He said that he is in the Chadian capital because it is easier to get the word out about the movement here than in the bush.

The violence in Darfur has spilled across the border into eastern Chad, complicating a conflict here in which several rebel groups are seeking to overthrow the government of President Idriss Deby.

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