OUR battered taxi weaves through nearly deserted streets on a Friday afternoon - the Muslim holy day. As we pass along the wide Nile River, the driver suddenly proclaims that Iraq's President Saddam Hussein is a ``good man.'' But a Sudanese woman passenger disagrees. She has studied in Iraq and considers Saddam a ``bad man.'' She suggests the driver doesn't know what he's talking about.
Relations with Iraq are a contentious issue here in Sudan. Khartoum is one of the few governments viewed as supporting Saddam.
``Iraq was the best friend of Sudan,'' Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, a senior Sudanese official, told the Monitor. He says that Iraq has provided badly needed oil and weapons.
Sudan's official position has been to condemn Iraq's aggression, to try to arbitrate a solution among Arab leaders, and to condemn the intervention of non-Arab troops in Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, if arbitration fails, Sudan will be obliged by the Muslim holy book, the Koran, to ``support the oppressed'' Kuwait, say Sudanese officials and conservative Muslims.
``We are against the invasion of Kuwait,'' says Dr. Omer, who heads Sudan's Council of Higher Education.
But the government's officially neutral position is overshadowed by frequent and favorable coverage on state-run television of Saddam and visits to Iraq by influential Sudanese. And for the moment, it is the presence of Western troops, primarily American, that has angered conservative Muslims here.
In a small, ground-floor government office, a Sudanese Muslim, dressed in white jallaba and turban, offers his assessment, citing the Koran as his source.
``This [Iraqi affair] is a Muslim war. If you [speaking of Saudi Arabia] get support from a non-Muslim nation, you are not a Muslim yourself.'' Both Saudis and Americans have become ``infidels,'' the man said. ``Jihad [holy war] is a must now.'' But, he added ``there is always a way out.''
Some Sudanese hold open the possibility of Iraq leaving Kuwait or of foreign troops exiting Saudi Arabia. Omer suggests a United Nations peacekeeping force. Another government official says that only Sudan's government backs Iraq, ``not the people.'' He says Iraqi soldiers are mistreating people in Kuwait.
``Intellectuals don't support the government siding with Iraq,'' says one Sudanese. ``We feel the perpetuation of the war in the south [Sudan's civil war] is due to the Iraqi supply of weapons.''
The journal Africa Confidential says that Iraq restarted the supply of weapons to Sudan's government just two weeks before invading Kuwait. The Iraqis also supplied bombs used in the most recent attacks by the government on rebel-held southern towns. After the government bombed rebel-held Bor when a UN relief plane was on the ground, Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan's leader, ordered a unilateral, three-month cease-fire to allow the UN to vaccinate children in the war zones.
Sudan's decision to side with Iraq ``gains [it] nothing and loses a good deal,'' says another Western diplomat. Angered by Sudan's stand, Saudi Arabia has apparently ended its economic assistance to Sudan. And according to diplomatic reports originating in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is providing or preparing to provide some kind of assistance to the Sudanese rebels.
That Sudan has an Islamic government does not make it ``anti-Western,'' Omer says. But Sudan's stand has alienated the West at a time when economic and food assistance are needed to prevent famine, a Western diplomat says. After the June 30 coup last year, in which the democratic Sudanese government of Sadiq al-Mahdi was deposed, the United States cut off economic aid.