I'm innocent, insists the world's most wanted man

Sudan's ruler stands accused of being the architect of Darfur's suffering. But the blame lies elsewhere, he tells Katherine Butler

A permanent and enigmatic smile plays on the lips of Omar al Bashir. At least it does in the portraits of him which bear down on the streets of Khartoum. The billboards carry rousing slogans: "The man of our epoch", "Al Bashir, symbol of national pride and dignity" or "A leader who is targeted for his successes".

In person, the smile is there too. The military dictator may be a pariah who could, in theory, be bundled away in handcuffs at any moment and put on trial charged with masterminding acts of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing on an industrial scale in Darfur. But for a wanted man, he looks relaxed, grinning and nodding as a delegation of British Muslims, led by the former Labour peer and would-be peace broker Lord Nazir Ahmed, prods him about his decision to expel the leading international charities from Darfur.

Bashir, a former army General who seized power in Sudan in a 1989 coup, installing an Islamist regime, was indicted on seven counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity in March. But if he lies awake at night, either because his conscience is troubling him or because he fears a jail cell in The Hague awaits him, it doesn't show.

He moves freely about the capital, attending his favourite mosque on Fridays with little or no visible security, according to one worshipper who prayed near him last week.

At his residence on the banks of the Nile, (not, fortuitously, the presidential palace, where Gordon of Khartoum met his end in 1885, speared to death on the staircase) security is low key. There are no airport-style scanning machines. You are asked politely to leave your bag or any recording equipment in a reception room before being ushered upstairs to a grander space with a tiled floor, chandeliers overhead and a grandfather clock in the corner.

When a slight figure dressed in long white cotton robes slips in, you don't feel you are immediately in the presence of one of Africa's Big Men – except, perhaps, for the large gold ring on his left hand and the throne-like gilt chair on which he sits.

In a low monotone, he expounds on what he calls the "realities" of Sudan. "Definitely we have a problem in Darfur," he begins. "We admit that fact." When he presses on, however, pausing only for prayer when the call of the muezzin echoes through the stiflingly hot Khartoum night air, it is to give his unapologetic version of what the UN has called the "world's greatest humanitarian crisis".

In Bashir's account, he and the Sudanese people are the victims, the Darfur atrocities and massacres the fault of insurgents egged on by the "incitement" of foreign enemies. "We gave the priority to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but after we had exhausted all the possibilities then there was no other alternative to military action," he says.

Sudan is vilified by a hypocritical West, he says, ready to brand every insurgent movement in the world as terrorist, "with one exception, Sudan". If the Government of Sudan was so vile and murderous, he asks, why would two million displaced Darfuris have flocked into government-run displacement camps? "The government received these people, provided them with food water and protection when there was no African Union or UN presence."

He makes no mention of his undoubted contempt for George Clooney, the hunger-striking Mia Farrow or the other American stars who have turned the plight of Darfur into a cause célèbre; but then, the most notorious foreigner in this part of Sudan is not from Hollywood. It is Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Argentinian chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) whose name is, to put it mildly, mud in Khartoum. ("Get out of our face Ocampo," goes a popular song.)

Ironically, contends Salaheddin Ghazi, the President's adviser, Ocampo's action, far from incentivising any rivals to mount a coup or depose the Sudanese ruler, has martyrised him. "It may have made him look like a villain in Western countries, but it has so maximised his popularity here that nobody in his wildest dreams could hope to compete with him."

Moreover, he claims the indictment has emboldened Darfur's rebels. "Why should they negotiate if they can sit idly by and just wait for the downfall of the government and for Bashir to be taken to court? And this is what has happened, there has been a complete abortion of the negotiating process."

While the ICC is clearly not the only threat to Bashir's survival, some in the international community would agree that Ocampo's campaign to try him has not been entirely helpful. Like him or not, some diplomats reluctantly acknowledge, Bashir negotiated the 2005 peace deal which ended two decades of civil war between north and south Sudan. Can it be implemented without him? Tribal conflicts in the South, which holds 85 per cent of Sudan's oil, have been intensifying ahead of a possible referendum on secession. South Kordofan, a restive new state in the oil-rich territory that straddles the north and south, could be the next Darfur, some analysts believe. This week, 200 tribesmen were killed there in clashes over grazing land.

Darfur itself, while quieter than at the height of the violence in 2003/04, is far from peaceful. From the air, the scorched red earth of the battered province looks endlessly barren and hopeless. El Fasher, the government-controlled capital of north Darfur, is booming; a new airport has just opened. But several low intensity wars continue and there has been a proliferation of rebel movements.

"Darfur is still in conflict," says Nawan Hassan, a South Darfuri woman working with the USAid programme in the province. "The situation is in some ways worse now and we are moving towards becoming the next Somalia. When all this started up, there were only two rebel movements. Now there are 26." Meanwhile, clashes with neighbouring Chad are threatening to spin into a regional conflict.

Sudan's extreme volatility explains why, away from the headlines, diplomatic efforts are quietly under way which may see the US talking again to the reviled regime in Khartoum. Barack Obama called Darfur "a stain on our souls" during his election campaign. But in office he has ordered a review of policy on Sudan. Scott Gration, Obama's newly appointed envoy for Sudan, travelled to Khartoum, Darfur, and the southern capital, Juba, last month, meeting government officials as well as opposition parties. John Kerry, the Democratic senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also visited.

But could Obama unclench his fist to the point that he lets Bashir off the hook legally, in the hope of a political settlement in Darfur and of establishing intelligence co-operation with Khartoum (which for several years was the home of Osama Bin Laden) in the fight against terrorism? And could Bashir, despite his public defiance, be showing signs of wanting to "do a Colonel Gaddafi" and thus negotiate himself a free pass from international justice?

Khartoum is, according to one highly placed official in the ruling party, "tired of war". It has pledged to hold democratic elections in February. And Bashir sent delegates last week to a women's conference in Darfur, where Darfuris openly and loudly demanded justice for rape victims and condemned Khartoum's failure to provide them with security.

Some European governments are beginning to contemplate the idea that if Bashir were willing to hand over other indictees, engage convincingly in peace negotiations and prosecute the rapists and murderers, then the case for suspension of the indictment could be argued under Article 16 of the ICC treaty.

In Abu Shouk refugee camp, the biggest in North Darfur, the women (90 per cent of those in the displacement camps are women) are not preparing for an imminent political settlement. They're busy making mud bricks to strengthen their dwellings with walls. Across Darfur, more than two million people are stuck in similar camps. Ibrahim al Khalil, Abu Shouk's administrator, insists that the people are desperate to "return to their villages and rebuild their homes". This rings hollow with Mohamed Mattar, 55, who has been in the camp since 2004, when the Janjaweed, the Arab militia sent by the government, attacked his village. He has the look of a proud man and tells of his farm in Taweela, where he grew tobacco, tomatoes and sorghum. "We had a comfortable life back there. We were producers. Now we depend on relief". So would he go back to rebuild his farm? "Absolutely not, it's too dangerous".

The administration in Washington is mindful of the Christian Right, who have campaigned loudly on Darfur, and want to see Bashir behind bars. The conflict has evolved to a new complexity, with several different conflicts now running in parallel, but US faith-based groups still see it in the same moral terms as they did five years ago.

Yet as Bakri Saeed, the president of Sudan International University and a member of Bashir's ruling NCP party, points out: "Obama can't afford to get sucked into a military confrontation here. It would be 10 times worse than Iraq. He knows it is a no-go area militarily". This reality has strengthened Khartoum to ram home the warning that if America pursues Bashir to trial, they may face a worse nightmare.

Ghazi claims he already senses a cautious shift towards detente in Washington. "I would say Obama is much more pragmatic on Darfur. You have people in his administration who are very hostile to the Sudan government and they have not changed, but they have toned down their rhetoric. And there's a growing body of people in Washington who take a different view of us. We are counting on them".

Engagement is one thing, but suspending Bashir's indictment would be a travesty for those who argue there is no peace without justice. Others, like Alex Meixner, from the Save Darfur coalition, say that relying on a freed Bashir to bring peace to Darfur would be naïve, given his track record.

"We're not against engagement, but the current government has huge crimes to answer for," Meixner says. "We would be against blind engagement which ignores the lessons of dealing with Khartoum. They relieve the pressure on them by making promises. It's a game they play."

An alternative path would involve the Chinese. The Sudanese capital Khartoum has been enjoying a Chinese investment-led oil boom. Cranes jut into the skyline and there are plans to turn the banks of the Nile into a Dubai-style sprawl of resort hotels, golf courses and skyscrapers. If China can be persuaded its big interests are jeopardised by Bashir's regime, Beijing could agree to a tightening of UN sanctions to include, for example, penalties on countries that support him.

Back in the parched barren landscape of the Darfur camps, Mattar the tobacco farmer would simply like an acknowledgement that grave injustices were committed. "It was all a political game, we had no hand in it. Peace is possible if Bashir apologises for all the violations and gives us compensation for our losses," he says. "Then reconciliation can begin."

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