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Julie Flint: A peace plan not worth the paper it's written on

Asked what could be done to help him, my friend in Darfur replied: "Pray"

A friend called by satellite telephone from Jebel Marra, the mountainous heartland of Darfur, yesterday. Janjaweed were attacking barely a mile away and women and children were fleeing for their lives. He was "in the middle of a war". Asked what could be done to help him, he said: "Pray".

The Darfur Peace Agreement, three weeks old today, is, for the moment at least, not worth the paper it is printed on. The Janjaweed militias, the Sudan government's partner in crime in the first genocide of the 21st century, were not party to the inter-Sudanese peace talks in Abuja and are writing their rejection of it in blood. The ordinary people of Darfur, also shut out of the talks, have little idea what the agreement says and are demonstrating against it, even though the rainy season is approaching and conditions in the overcrowded camps of Darfur are about to deteriorate lethally.

Abdul Wahid Mohamed al Nur, leader of the largest faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, has refused to sign the agreement. So has the smaller Justice and Equality Movement. Only two parties have endorsed it: the Sudan government and the faction of the SLA that is led by Minni Minawi. Both believe in domination through force; both are ruled by small and ruthless tribal elites. Their adherence to the agreement is reason enough for many Darfurians to refuse it.

The United States, the key player in Abuja, always banked on Minni to bring peace home. In purely military terms, Minni's is the strongest rebel faction in Darfur. But his Zaghawa tribe comprises less than 10 per cent of the population of Darfur, and the abusive, undisciplined behaviour of his forces has awakened old fears that the tribe has a hidden agenda - occupation of the more fertile lands of others.

Abdul Wahid's Fur, historic rulers of the Sultanate which gives Darfur its name, make up almost one-third of the population. If either man has support outside his own tribe, it is Abdul Wahid. (Not one of Abdul Wahid's key negotiators in Abuja was Fur; Minni's were all Zaghawa.)

"All the main tribes are against Minni," a leader of the independent Darfur Forum told me last month. "Abdul Wahid is an innocent, but he has the solidarity of most of the tribes of Darfur."

The tragedy of the difficult birth of the Darfur Peace Agreement is that it is not a bad agreement, although it could, with patience and more pressure on Khartoum, have been so much better. Government forces must withdraw to barracks and there is, for the first time, a timetable for the disarmament of the Janjaweed. Darfurians will have elections in three years. Until then, a nominee of the rebel movements will occupy the fourth-highest position in the land, senior assistant to the President, and will control a new regional authority with a first-year budget of more than half a billion dollars.

But the agreement has a number of critical weaknesses, each of which could be fatal. There is insufficient detail about implementation and a reliance, in many areas, on a government which has not honoured a single commitment made since it unleashed its forces against the rebels, and the marginalised tribes from which they are drawn, early in 2003.

In essence, the people of Darfur are being told to put aside their concerns and trust the international community to force Khartoum's compliance. But why should they trust us? Why should they be impressed that the ruling National Congress Party has committed to disarm the Janjaweed for the seventh time in two years? Why should they believe we will punish Khartoum if it violates this agreement when we have never punished it before?

Rather than threaten doubters with sanctions, the US and the UK, who conspired in an avalanche of deadlines in the final months of Abuja, must acknowledge the shortcomings of the peace process and do their utmost to remedy them. There will be no peace in Darfur unless all tribes, including the government's predominantly Arab proxies, feel they have a stake in it.

But Arabs feel marginalised, excluded from Abuja and threatened by the International Criminal Court. Urgent steps must be taken - now - to win their support for an all-Darfur conference designed to build a consensus among tribes. Khartoum must be rebuked, publicly and fiercely, for every violation of the agreement and every commitment it fails to meet. Most importantly, ordinary Darfurians must be made aware of what is in the agreement In this critical moment, the concerns of all honest Darfurians must be respected. As Abuja drew to a close, the US and UK took over defining the solution. But whose peace is it, anyway?

Julie Flint is co-author, with Alex de Waal, of Darfur - A Short History of a Long War, published by Zed Books