A Cry in Sudan

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A BASIC creed in the Koran is known as zakat. Zakat is the universal Muslim religious duty to help the poor. It's a doctrine the Islamic fundamentalist government of Sudan needs to reread several times - now - in order to avoid the possible death of millions of Sudanese from drought and starvation. A major catastrophe is pending in Sudan. A combination of rebel fighting in the south and a severe crop-killing drought last August leaves 5 to 12 million people at risk of wandering the parched countryside. Many have already started to migrate. Whereas 100,000 tons of food were needed this year, next year's shortfall is estimated at a million tons. Without immediate food aid, suffering will deepen. Zakat is in order.

Yet the Sudanese government in Khartoum, headed by Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been more interested in establishing an Islamic theocracy than in seeing its people fed, particularly non-Muslims in the rebel-controlled south. The government's policy has been to freeze and even to bomb shipments of relief food and supplies by train, plane, and barge, for the same reasons General Mengistu in adjoining Ethiopia has used: Khartoum is worried the food will feed rebel forces.

Even Mengistu finally signed a treaty with rebels for food distribution. This must also happen in Sudan. It isn't too late. Moderates in Khartoum see the handwriting on a crumbling Sudanese wall. Sudan's radical Islamic policies, including support of Iraq, have isolated it from allies such as the Saudis. Iran, the world's only other Islamic theocracy, now won't receive General al-Bashir. Even Muammar Qaddafi chides his Sudanese brethren for an unholy mix of religion and politics.

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Many Sudanese get the message. But internal matters may first get worse. The gap between the religious proclamations of Sudan's leaders and their actual practice approaches delusion, a kind of moral insanity. A Sudanese official told a Monitor reporter: ``We believe we can achieve stability and achieve integration between people ... all this stemming from the guidings of the Koran.'' Yet can this square with last week's action giving 50,000 refugees in the Hillat Shook camp one day's notice before burning it to the ground, and sending them to a camp with no water?

At some point, Sudan will call for food. The US and relief agencies need to be ready to ship. Shuttle diplomacy between Khartoum and the rebels by an experienced mediator like UNICEF's James Grant could help.

The world press and public must follow events in Sudan. Response to the humanitarian needs there is part of what a better post-cold-war world can do.

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