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Originally published March 4, 2009 at 8:20 AM | Page modified March 4, 2009 at 10:03 AM

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Sudan's al-Bashir a survivor over 20-year rule

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was hit by a war crimes arrest warrant Wednesday, has managed to hold power in Africa's largest nation despite 20 years of turmoil, including a long civil war, U.S. airstrikes, Western sanctions and bloodshed in Darfur.

KHARTOUM, Sudan —

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was hit by a war crimes arrest warrant Wednesday, has managed to hold power in Africa's largest nation despite 20 years of turmoil, including a long civil war, U.S. airstrikes, Western sanctions and bloodshed in Darfur.

The 64-year-old al-Bashir, Sudan's longest-serving president since independence in 1958, has been able to weather the storms by keeping a firm hold on his ruling coalition of the military and Islamic fundamentalists - and by knowing when to make limited concessions to the West.

At the time an army colonel, al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup, known as the "Salvation Revolution," masterminded by his Islamic hard-liner partner Hassan Turabi. The regime banned opposition parties and intensified the rule of Islamic sharia law.

Over the 1990s, his government cultivated links with Islamic militants, including al-Qaida - whose leader Osama bin Laden moved to the country in 1992 and set up an al-Qaida infrastructure there. The United States branded his government a state sponsor of terrorism and imposed sanctions.

Al-Bashir expelled bin Laden in 1996 under pressure from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Still, two years later, U.S. cruise missiles hit a Sudanese pharmaceuticals factory believed at the time to be linked to al-Qaida in retaliation for the terror network's deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Throughout, al-Bashir's Arab-led regime was battling animist Christian rebels in south Sudan in a civil war that had been raging since 1983.

Under intense international pressure, al-Bashir negotiated a 2005 peace deal with the rebels that created autonomous rule in the south and a power-sharing government in Khartoum and promised southerners a 2011 referendum on independence. The deal remains shaky. Fighting between the two sides has erupted at times, and many are skeptical Khartoum would allow the south to break away.

A separate conflict erupted in the large western region of Darfur in 2003, when ethnic African rebels rose up against Khartoum, complaining of discrimination by the Arab government. Khartoum responded with a military crackdown, and it is accused of unleashing Arab militias known of janjaweed, which have attacked ethnic African villages, killing, raping and looting residents. Khartoum denies supporting the janjaweed.

Al-Bashir, who has two wives and no children, cultivates a down-to-earth image. He often attends funerals, weddings and other ceremonies, where he dances with the crowds, shedding his military uniform for traditional robes. In the late 1990s, he ousted Turabi, though Islamic conservatives continue to hold sway in al-Bashir's ruling party. Turabi remains a powerful opposition figure, and is currently jailed for comments supporting the international war crimes court.

The Darfur conflict brought al-Bashir heavy condemnation from the West. But at the same time, al-Bashir made himself valuable to the United States by cooperating with Washington against terrorism and by sealing the southern peace deal. The end of the north-south war also boosted Sudan's economy, and the country has raked in investment, particularly from China, strengthening al-Bashir.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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