KHARTOUM, SUDAN — FOR nearly three of the last four decades, civil war has engulfed this vast, disparate nation.
Ethnically and culturally, Sudan is two separate countries. Its north is predominantly Arab and Muslim; its south is largely black and practices a blend of Christianity and traditional African religions.
Fighting waxes and wanes in the south, where government and rebel troops are locked in Africa's longest-running civil war.
Sudan's military government came to power in a 1989 coup that overturned the three-year-old elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi. The new regime transformed the country into a strict Islamic state. Sudan was the first African country to follow the path of Iran's Islamic republic. Its foreign policies and support for Muslim militants from abroad have made the government increasingly isolated from the West and alienated many of its neighbors. Eritrea and Uganda have cut off relations, fearing destabilization and infiltration of armed militants across the porous borders.
Leaders of Sudan's National Islamic Front occupy key posts in the government, military, and business communities. Southern rebels reject the Islamic state, as do some northerners.
Sudan's two most powerful leaders are President Omar al-Bashir and Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, who heads the National Islamic Front. Dr. Turabi is said to be the real power behind the scenes.
Sudan has one of most repressive, extremist regimes in the region. The secret police are feared. Press freedom is curtailed. Political parties are banned. Foreigners need special government permits to travel beyond the capital, Khartoum.
But the nation defies stereotypes. In Khartoum, instead of finding a religiously rigid, fanatic populace, visitors encounter an easygoing, intellectually lively society.
Why Are the North and South at War?
THE 13-year civil war is an extension of a centuries-long struggle between the Islamic, Arab north and the black Christian and animist south.
The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has been fighting since 1983 to end the domination of the north and to challenge the imposition of strict Islamic law.
The SPLA is led by former Army Col. John Garang and is dominated by the Dinka tribe. The group gained significant ground in an offensive late last year after acquiring substantial new weaponry.
In 1991, another faction, led by Riek Machar's Nuer tribe, broke away from the mainstream SPLA, accusing Colonel Garang of human rights abuses. Garang says Mr. Machar is an agent of Khartoum.
More than 1.3 million people have died in the war and resulting famines. Fighting has driven more than 3 million others from their homes.
One ethnic group, the Nuba people, are suffering greatly, wedged between the government and rebel fronts.
Khartoum: Terrorist Hub?
SUDAN denies Western claims that it shelters international militants. But United States officials claim some 4,000 Islamic radicals receive military training in at least 20 Sudanese camps.
The Palestinian Resistance Group, Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for four suicide bombings in Israel since Feb. 25, has an office and spokesman in Sudan's capital, Khartoum.
US economic aid was blocked in 1993 when the State Department added Sudan to its list of countries supporting terrorism.
Sudan sheltered one of the world's most wanted terrorists, Illich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as "Carlos the Jackal." Facing international pressure, Sudan expelled Mr. Sanchez to France in 1994.
Sudan faces its most damaging charge yet of terrorism with accusations of involvement in the attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June.
FACTS ABOUT SUDAN
Location: Borders on nine countries, including Egypt, and is just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia.
Size: 967,500 square miles. Africa's largest country, it takes up a swath of territory as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River.
Population: 27 million people. About 80 percent live in rural areas.
Ethnic makeup: About 75 percent are Sunni Muslims. They live mainly in the north. The south is dominated by those who follow a blend of Christianity and African animist religions. The country has many cultures and more than 550 ethnic groups.
Language: Arabic is the official language, but more than 100 other languages are spoken.
Economy: One of Africa's poorest nations, with 40 percent unemployment and periodic famines. Prices rose 70 percent in 1995. Foreign debt is estimated at $16 billion.