NASIR, SUDAN — IN a Spartan compound full of soldiers, which lies on the southeastern edge of Sudan, an African tribal snake is painted on the wall of a bare mud hut.
Inside the hut, almost alone on the commander's desk, there is a Good News Bible with gold embossed lettering on the cover.
It is here, in this "office," that Comdr. Riek Machar holds court, though the close proximity of the snake and Bible - both tokens of southern Sudanese spiritual strength - will be needed if he is to win his fight against both a rival faction in the south and the northern Muslim forces of Khartoum, Sudan's capital.
For eight years, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has fought the imposition of Islamic sharia (religious law) by the Arab north of Sudan on the Christian and animist, African south. But last August, the rebels split into two rival groups.
Commander Riek leads the new "Nasir faction" of the SPLA, which in August accused Col. John Garang - who had led the SPLA from its birth in 1983 - of waging a dictatorial reign of terror within the organization.
Since then, Riek and his ragtag half of the SPLA, which controls 35 percent of rebel-held southern Sudan, have fought from this isolated base for the south to form an independent state.
But the political situation seems to have changed: The military regime in Khartoum announced in December that it had been in contact with Riek's faction and supported it against its rival led by Colonel Garang.
"They see a common enemy in Garang," says a Western observer who knows both SPLA factions well. "But Riek is very intelligent, he is just using Khartoum to finish Garang."
For the Khartoum regime, however, Riek serves as an obvious protagonist to let the southern, secessionist enemy weaken itself, making it possible for Khartoum to finally conquer the south.
Allegations that Iran is supplying military hardware to Sudan, and American charges last month of a sudden influx of Islamic and Palestinian militants to Khartoum, do not point toward a simple end to the Sudanese conflict. There are also reports - endorsed by Riek - that Khartoum has enlisted Islamic militias from Iran to aid its fight against the SPLA.
Riek denies that he has any contact with Khartoum, and says that the Islamic government is still his No. 1 enemy.
"I am very conscious [of] what I'm fighting for, and I've fought Khartoum for years," he says. "I do not want to see a weak SPLA. If Khartoum attacks, [both SPLA factions] will be united."
But indications of selective support from Khartoum for the Riek faction persist.
* One aircraft loaded with ammunition from "up north presumably from Khartoum - landed in the town of Leer at a critical moment, when Riek's troops were outgunned by those of Garang in November. Western relief workers in the area say other airdrops of ordnance have been spotted at the Riek-held town of Akobo on Ethiopia's border, not far from Nasir.
* Flight clearance for relief planes to rebel-held areas, which must be approved by Khartoum, had given to Riek's base areas, but canceled to Garang's. (Yesterday Khartoum canceled authorization for all relief flights into southern Sudan).
* Since the SPLA split, Riek has been joined by the Anya Nya II, a militant secessionist group that broke away from the SPLA and has kept ties with the regime.
* Riek also is reported to have received government officials who travel from the government garrison town of Malakal, four hours away from this base by Land Rover. The town is busy, Riek's intelligence people say, with the Sudanese Army preparing for its first offensive of the dry season against the SPLA.
This year's offensive from the north may not end in the usual stalemate, however, if the recent SPLA rift proves too deep to mend. Already, two battles between Riek and Garang loyalists since August have left 5,000 people dead.
Witnesses say the inter-SPLA fighting has been more fierce than any between the government and SPLA, and that much of it is based on generations-old animosity between Riek's Nuer tribe and Garang's Dinka people.
Most of the casualties have occurred in the Dinka heartland of Bor and Kongor, where thousands of Riek's troops swept through in November, forcing 100,000 people to flee, Western relief workers say. (See story at right.) Peace talks between the factions are scheduled for Feb. 10.
"If you ask them to fight for democracy, that is too much," says a Western relief worker who knows Sudan well. "The way to make them fight is to revive old differences: there is nothing like a line of ancestral murders to motivate a fighter."
"I don't think anyone is really interested in ending this war - not the factions nor the rest of the world," laments school teacher Vincent Mangok, who has spent the last four years as a refugee in Ethiopia, and only recently returned to Sudan. "This [new tribalism] seen during the fighting is much more frightening. Now it has become a senseless war."