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."

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.

So the government decided to use the Janjaweed militia to help put down the Darfur rebellion. Hilal was in prison again, for crimes allegedly committed in 2002, but the government chose him to help organize the militia, according to Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist for the Congressional Research Service.

Hilal was released from prison after personal intervention by Sudan's first vice president, Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha, Dagne said. Another man, Gen. Abdullah Safi Nur, an Air Force commander and former commissioner of Darfur who is Hilal's cousin, also intervened, he said, adding that the Sudanese government had relied on militia leaders such as Hilal in earlier conflicts, including in southern Sudan.

Villages Bombed

The government responded to the rebel attack by bombing hundreds of villages. On the ground, Janjaweed fighters were unleashed. Some of them were jobless young men motivated by old ethnic tensions and lured into a lucrative new profession. They were then authorized by the government to burn villages and loot livestock and food, human rights groups say. They were also allowed to rape with impunity.

At least 30,000 people have been killed in Darfur, according to human rights reports. Among the more than one million people displaced by the violence, at least 200,000 have fled into neighboring Chad. Aid groups say 300,000 people have been left vulnerable to hunger and disease.

U.S. and U.N. investigators say they believe that the most significant leader of the Janjaweed is Taha, the country's first vice president, whom they have accused of orchestrating the attacks in Darfur. In February, Taha publicly told senior U.S. officials that he was going to "take care of the Darfur problem."

"The Janjaweed are just mercenaries and are just one piece of a bigger puzzle," Dagne said. "If I was Hilal, I would be less worried about the U.S. list and more worried about what First Vice President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha might do."

The U.S. has also circulated a U.N. Security Council resolution to impose an arms and travel embargo on the militiamen. But Dagne said that since the fighters rarely travel outside Sudan and apparently have no major assets, such sanctions would be largely symbolic.

Today, Hilal, 43, describes himself as a sheik, or religious and community leader, as was his grandfather in western Darfur during British colonial times. Hilal says he is responsible for more than 300,000 Arabs in Darfur.

On a recent night, Hilal, pressing his long fingers together, said his job as a leader was to protect his people and their honor. According to him, Africans have killed Arabs for years over grievances about land and water. "Things like that give birth to bitterness," he said.

Hilal said that although he has never carried a weapon, he has rallied other Arabs to fight. "When the government put forward a program of arming all the people, I will not deny I called our sons and told them to become armed, and our sons acquiesced," he said. "Those who became armed were no less than 3,000."

Rep. Donald M. Payne (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on Africa and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is pushing to set up an international war crimes tribunal for Darfur, like those set up following the Balkan wars and the Rwandan genocide.

Payne has developed a separate list of government officials who he says are supervising and controlling Janjaweed activities. He listed Taha as number one, along with Nur, Hilal's cousin, and several other officials.

"This is a pariah government, which once harbored Osama bin Laden and took more than 20 years to even begin to end its civil war with the south," Payne said. "Darfur could happen again if we don't condemn this government's role in planning and executing the Janjaweed."

Hilal recently visited the U.S. and British embassies, preaching traditional reconciliation methods and telling diplomats and journalists that he wants to learn English.

A Recruit's Tale

On April 22, 2003, said Mustafa Yusuf, a slim teenager with high cheekbones and a square face, he was kidnapped by Hilal's men and taken to a Janjaweed training camp in northern Darfur.

About 6,000 people were at the camp, Yusuf told journalists and a U.N. investigator. At 5:30 each morning, the boys and men woke and practiced shooting. They also learned how to spy on the African rebels.

Three times a week, he recalled, a helicopter gunship ferried in supplies, including weapons, ammunition and food. Yusuf, who escaped from the camp and is now a student in Khartoum, said that one day when the helicopter landed Hilal stepped off in a military uniform.

When the recruits arrived, Yusuf said, Hilal made a speech in which he told them that all Africans were their enemies. "Hilal said we should defeat the rebels," said Yusuf, 18, his eyes shifting to the floor.

Before an attack on April 27, Hilal and the troops sang wars songs: "We go to the war. We go to defeat the rebels. We are not afraid of war. We are the original people of this area," Yusuf recalled.

Later, after he fled the camp, Yusuf said he was in the market and watched as Hilal returned in a Land Cruiser from raids on African villages, followed by men on horseback. "They came back with beds and suitcases, blankets and radios," said Yusuf, who recounted his tale nervously. "There were camels, sheep and goats."

According to witnesses and U.N. officials, Hilal also coordinated a Feb. 27 raid on the village of Tawilah, near El Fasher. Hilal, in military uniform, landed by helicopter in a field on the outskirts of town, witnesses interviewed in Tawilah said. He set up a canvas tent and was guarded by Janjaweed fighters on horses and camels.

Witnesses said they saw Hilal receiving weapons and food from men in government helicopters.

Over the next three days, the marketplace was set on fire, 16 schoolgirls were kidnapped and at least 67 people were killed, according to a U.N. report. A video filmed by the governor's office and obtained by the United Nations days after the attack, showed fly-ridden bodies rotting in the street, a fuming and charred marketplace and women crying as they rocked children.

"This was the day the children were taken and all the people started to become displaced," said Saddiq Ismail, 45, a retired teacher and an African resident of Tawilah. "Everybody wanted to fight Musa Hilal, even the little men. But Musa Hilal wanted to get rid of everyone. . . . If you said you were Arab he would say, 'Come fight with me.' They were discriminating against us."

When the attack occurred, Ismail said, he hid in the bushes and took notes, because he felt it was his duty as an educated member of society to chronicle what was happening.

"During the three days, the military helicopter landed and took off each day," Ismail said. "Hilal moved and gave instructions, with men unloading guns off of the helicopter. "One day, the helicopter took the injured. They also got deliveries of food. By the time Hilal left, the town was nearly empty."

On a recent night in Khartoum, Hilal was asked about allegations that the militia was responsible for atrocities in Darfur.

"There is death in war, and until it is all over we will not know the true extent of what has happened," he said, over tea and pastries.

He contended that the crimes in Darfur were being committed by random criminals and not by those trying to put down the rebellion. Even the term 'Janjaweed,' he said, was being used incorrectly.

"Janjaweed is a colloquial word which means thief or bandit or highwayman," he said. "It means nothing and has been used to mean everything."

Musa Hilal, left, is said by U.S. officials to be a leader of the Janjaweed militia, accused of atrocities in Sudan.Children orphaned in attacks by government troops and Janjaweed Arabs sit outside their home in western Sudan.Musa Hilal says he is a defender of Sudanese Arabs against African rebels.