Religious differences remain a major stumbling block to ending Sudan's four-year-old civil war. Besides destroying the economy in the rebellious south, and wreaking havoc in much of Sudan, the war is:
Leaving thousands of people homeless. Rural southern civilians have lost their homes, crops, and cattle, and have trekked hundreds of miles to cities, including Khartoum, to escape bodily danger or death.
Resulting in mass killings. A government policy to arm tribes that are traditional opponents of the Dinka, the main source of armed opposition to the government, has resulted in massacres.
Causing starvation. Rebels are blocking relief supplies from reaching key southern towns held by the government. And, the government is accused of having been slow to make food available to civilians in the south.
At issue is the question of north-south power sharing in a united government. But most Sudanese and other political analysts here say that even before there can be talks on power sharing, the government must retreat from backing Sharia (Islamic law) which has been imposed on all Sudanese, including the largely non-Muslim south. Under Sharia, punishments including amputations and death by stoning are allowed.
Peace is potentially close at hand, according to Sudanese of diverse political persuasions.
``There's a lot of room for compromise,'' says Ishaq Muhammad Al-Khalifa Sharif, a prominent member of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi's family. The two sides have talked before. And both disapprove of the mixture of Islamic-civil laws imposed in 1983 by a former ruler.
There is not, however, an urgent quest for peace. Both Khartoum and the rebels appear to be locked in their positions. This is true even though most analysts say neither can be victorious.
``One senses a lack of urgency. I'm surprised that the quest for peace is not more important,'' says a diplomat.
The rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) may feel no urgency to negotiate because of recent gains on the battlefield. The SPLA is reportedly gaining strength in the Nuba mountains, and moving toward Kadugli, further north than previous battle areas.
The most pessimistic analysis offered by diplomats and observers here is that the government believes the rebels eventually can be worn down with the help of government-armed local militias made up of tribes that are traditional enemies of the Dinka.
Moreover, lack of progress toward ending the war could lead the military to overthrow the current government, say diplomatic and other leaders.
Southern protest against Muslim domination has been a key element of on-off civil war here for more than three decades. In 1980, about 73 percent of Sudan's population was Muslim.
The government has postponed the harsh punishments meted out under Sharia, and Prime Minister Mahdi has proposed selective application of the law. But the SPLA rejects this and wants Sharia abolished.
Even some members of the Prime Minister's ruling party do not back his proposal. And the third-ranking party in Parliament, the National Islamic Front (NIF), backs a different plan for partial application of Sharia.
``There is an Islamic renaissance all over the world,'' Secretary-general of the NIF Hassan al-Turabi said in an interview. ``We think this has to be recognized.''
According to Mr. Turabi's compromise, there would be non-Islamic laws on private matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and Islamic laws on national matters.
That, too, is unacceptable to the SPLA.
In 1972, after 17 years of civil war, the south gained greater autonomy in an agreement with the government. But that autonomy eventually eroded, and in 1983 civil war broke out again, following revocation of the south's semiautonomous status and imposition of Sharia.
The current campaign by southern rebels is for non-religious government, a greater voice in running their own affairs, and a larger share of Sudan's federal spending to upgrade their undeveloped, war-ravaged region.
As both a religious figure and great grandson of the famed religious leader the ``Great Mahdi'' - who liberated Sudan from Turkish Ottoman rule and routed the British from Khartoum - Mahdi finds it difficult to abolish Sharia. ``Moving away from Sharia by a politician here will be immediately attacked as a kind of apostasy'' by Muslim leaders, says his uncle, Ishaq Muhammad.
A possible compromise exists in the rejection by both north and south of the mixture of Islamic and civil law.
Mr. Muhammad suggests abolishing this mixture of civil and religious laws. ``The question of Sharia should be left in abeyance, or go back to civil law,'' he says. Or, he adds, which law to adopt could be ``fought out'' in Parliament, presumably with southerners participating.
Muhammad also suggests compromise on governance of the south: a confederation based on the model of Switzerland, with considerable autonomy of each region under a national government. But, he added, in Sudan today, his view is ``very much a minority point of view.''