PEACE-MAKING is not a role one usually ascribes to an army. But in Sudan, now in its fifth year of a civil war, that's exactly a part the military is playing. Step by step, the Sudanese Army is pushing the civilian government closer to a possible cease-fire agreement with rebels in the south. Last week's formation of a new civilian Cabinet is the latest response to military pressure to end the war.
Although it is not losing the war, the Sudanese Army hasn't been winning it, either. In recent months, the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has gained control of more southern towns. The war has drained the country's finances, has left more than 2 million homeless and perhaps as many as 250,000 civilians dead from starvation.
Around the world, calls - including one from US President Bush and top UN officials - have grown for a cease-fire, for humanitarian reasons. A stop in fighting would make it easier to deliver food relief before rains begin in April or May.
As a result of domestic pressure from the Army and some opposition groups, Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi has:
Reversed his earlier position and endorsed a peace plan.
Obtained the resignations of his entire Cabinet and promised to put together a more broadly based coalition.
Called for a one-month stop in the fighting to allow humanitarian relief.
The Cabinet shuffle is not likely to satisfy the military unless it is quickly followed by a plan to cease fighting and start peace talks. The SPLA rebels, without rejecting the idea of a temporary cease-fire, are pushing for a permanent one.
THE military's role, explains Francis Deng, a former Sudanese ambassador to the United States, is ``not an issue of who's in or out, but the strategy for addressing issues.''
The military faces a dilemma, Mr. Deng says: It wants to end the war. But if it seizes power to try to settle the war, it could face a popular revolt by Sudanese who do not wish to trade democracy for military rule.
So for now, the Army is pursuing a middle ground. Its ultimatum to al-Mahdi in February was to either end the war, or give the military the backing to win it. Failing that, the Army told Mahdi, step down. The statement from senior officers included reference to an ``economic and military siege'' facing the nation.
There are clear signs that the military is more anxious to end, rather than push, the war. For example, the popular former defense minister, Abdel Majid Hamid Khalil, endorsed a cease-fire plan signed last November by the SPLA and Sudan's second largest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). When Prime Minister Mahdi refused to accept the proposal, Mr. Khalil resigned in protest in late January.
The DUP, which left the coalition government in protest earlier this year after parliament did not adopt the peace plan, is expected to be a part of the new government.
The strong Muslim fundamentalist party the National Islamic Front has, however, refused to join the new government. Party leaders cite the failure of Mahdi to promise a date he will implement sharia (Muslim law) throughout Sudan.
The National Islamic Front staunchly opposed the proposed opposition-rebel peace plan because it called for a ``freeze'' on plans to impose sharia in Sudan. Most southern Sudanese are non-Muslim (either animist or Christian), and SPLA leaders insist that sharia not be made the official law of the land.
``Peace has never been so close,'' an SPLA leader and former foreign minister, Mansour Khalid, said in a recent interview.
The war is no longer a north (Muslim) vs. south (non-Muslim) issue, Mr. Khalid said. It has become an issue dividing the north itself - by uniting various pro-peace factions in the north against the prime minister.