Washington's bogyman sings hymn of moderation: Robert Fisk in Khartoum meets Hassan Abdullah Turabi, accused by the US of backing terrorism

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'I PERSONALLY know Arafat very well. He is a close friend of mine. He was an Islamist, you know, and then slowly moved into the Arab 'club' . . . he spoke to me before he signed (the PLO-Israel accord). He came here to Sudan. And I am now putting his case to the others - not as something that is right, but as something of necessity.

'What could Arafat do? He ran out of money. His army stopped. There were the refugees, the 10,000 prisoners in Israeli jails. Even a municipality is better than nothing.'

Could this really be Hassan Abdullah Turabi, enemy of 'Western tyranny', supposedly the eminence grise behind Sudan's Islamic government; a 'devil' according to the Egyptian newspapers, or - as the French press prefer to call him - the Ayatollah of Khartoum? He sat in his old English colonial office, explaining the raison d'etre of his apparent burst of moderation.

Yasser Arafat had just been on the phone and was expected in Khartoum within hours to attend Dr Turabi's Popular and Arab Islamic Conference. 'Look, I know what the Palestinian opposition are saying; that Israel's taking of Arab land is illegitimate, that it was a terrorist act to throw the Palestinians out of their homes. I know that what Arafat has accepted is even less than the so- called international resolutions that demand a total Israeli withdrawal.

'But I say to both Palestinian parties: 'Don't convert your political controversy into political violence and conflict into civil war.' They can talk to each other. Even if Arafat is to become a pragmatic politician, he can then tell Israel he has these people pressing behind him and that they, the Israelis, must compromise more. If Arafat and his opposition can talk, Arafat can take advantage of this fact.'

Before the world believes that the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader has acquired his most unlikely ally at a time when his accord with Israel looks more shaky than ever, it should be remembered that Sudan - now firmly added to Washington's 'state terrorism' list - is currently enduring an unpleasant period of isolation. Unkind hearts might suggest that Dr Turabi's unexpected support for the PLO leader is a less than subtle attempt to wipe Sudan off that list of pariahs, to be the historic mediator which encourages Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, the Hizbollah and all Mr Arafat's other enemies to give the man a chance. The leader of the Sudanese National Islamic Front denies such cynicism.

'I am advising everyone coming to our conference: 'Please use language that fully expresses your point of view but which is restrained. We have Shia and Sunni Muslims at our conference, Islamists and nationalists, Arabs and non-Arabs, Christians and Muslims.' And, though Dr Turabi does not specifically say so, all Mr Arafat's enemies too: Hamas, Hizbollah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) - with representatives of the Pakistan People's Party, the An-Nahda party from Tunisia, Afghans of all persuasions and an envoy from Somalia's Mohamed Farah Aideed.

Yet however much he may irritate the United States government, Dr Turabi is a thoughtful man, rational when you hear him speak, critical of Islamic groups when you least expect it. Take the FIS, to whom, the Algerian government claims, Dr Turabi sends both arms and money. How could he justify the violence used by opponents of the Algerian regime, even though the FIS had been deprived of its democratic election victory?

'In France, it was the same thing in the Second World War,' he said. 'People, when they are revolutionary or resistant or jihadist, go to these extremes. And you have to understand certain things about the history of Algeria. They lost a million martyrs in their war against the French. Whenever you have any conflict in Algeria, it's easy for them to go to these extremes. Not that the FIS itself had a planned strategy. The FIS was a current rather than an organised party. The FIS wasn't well planned for its future. No one planned for an interruption of the democratic process . . .

'I spoke to Abassi Madani (the FIS leader) before the elections in Algeria. I met him in the Middle East, once in Algeria itself. And I asked him: 'What's your programme like? What are you going to do after the elections? Have you started a dialogue with the French? Have you begun talking to other European states?' And he just said: 'No, no, we just want to win the election'.'

Dr Turabi allows himself a short burst of laughter as he contemplates such naivety. He enjoys reminding visitors of his meetings with European leaders, as well as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. He also repeats his denial of all those American stories of 'terrorist training bases' in the Sudanese desert.

So what of the West, about whose 'tyranny' Dr Turabi has long lectured the world? 'I know that they have a prejudice against Islam, a legacy of the Crusades and the colonialist time. But I can talk to the English. I can ask them: 'Don't you want to trade, open a dialogue?' If I'm said to be the arch-terrorist of the world, this is a misunderstanding of history. Because if people don't understand history, they need an 'arch-devil'. Journalists say I'm a conspirator, manipulating every fundamentalist, financing everybody. I don't have the money for this.'

Perhaps that's why he asks the British ambassador to send round the London newspapers when our man in Khartoum finishes with them. 'He sends me the Independent - but it always gets to me two weeks late.'

(Photograph omitted)