Hopes are rising in Sudan for a settlement to the country's five-year-old civil war, thanks to reports that peace talks may take place between Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi and southern rebel leader Col. John Garang in the next two months. A central issue in the talks, should they occur, will undoubtedly be the country's controversial adoption of sharia, or Islamic legal codes. The laws are a key point of contention between the country's northern-based Muslim government and the black African rebels - who follow mostly Christian or indigenous faiths - led by Colonel Garang in the south.
Political observers also expect the two leaders to discuss the fact that thousands of displaced southerners have been driven to the north by unexpectedly heavy rains in August. The ensuing flooding and a locust plague are expected to decimate crops in the south. The civil war has compounded difficulties in the government's efforts to address these problems.
``People are now realizing very well, that there is no progress, nothing good will happen to this country, unless the war comes to an end,'' says Mohamed Omer Beshir, a scholar at the University of Khartoum.
The Sudanese Parliament recently cut short bitter debate on a revision of sharia, and recommended redrafting certain controversial items within the law. The Islamic criminal code, which prescribes penalties such as amputation for robbery, was implemented in Sudan in 1983, but relaxed somewhat in 1985.
Despite the proposed revisions - which would maintain sharia but exempt the mostly non-Muslim southerners from such punishments as flogging, stoning, and amputations - the bill is sharply criticized by non-Muslims and Muslims.
Both claim it will deepen the historical division between the mostly Arab-Muslim north and the black African south.
And many say the revised bill will not further prospects for a peaceful settlement between the government and the southern rebels, known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
The SPLA, which opposes what is widely seen as traditional Arab domination and economic inequality in Sudan, has maintained that sharia must be completely abolished before a peace accord can be reached.
Some regard the quick end to the debate over the revised sharia bill as a concession to the rebels by the ruling coalition of three Muslim parties.
But SPLA officials say the parliamentary move, and the announcement of high-level peace talks, is a political ploy by Mr. Mahdi, who is struggling to maintain his grip on a nation battered by disasters.
Economic analysts, including Professor Beshir, estimate that the civil war costs about $1 million a day. This is in addition to the government's crushing foreign debt burden of $11 billion.
``There are no talks scheduled,'' says a senior rebel official who requested anonymity. ``This is only [Mahdi's] attempt to tell those opposed to the Islamic law, and his friends overseas who are pressuring him for peace, `See, I'm already talking to the SPLA.'''
There is little indication that the rebels are making their own moves toward a settlement.
The SPLA recently reissued a regular threat to shoot any plane flying in the rebel-dominated southern region, apparently as a reaction to this week's US-funded airlift of food and medicine for starving refugees in the town of Abyei, just above the north-south border.
The rebels have in the past attacked civilian planes and trucks carrying relief materials.