NAIROBI, Kenya — The day after the Sudanese government quickly dispensed with an attack by Darfurian rebels on the capital, Khartoum, the question that many people are asking is, “What were the rebels thinking?”
In several years of fighting, the rebels have largely confined their attacks to government positions in Darfur, never once attempting an assault on the capital.
And with good reason.
Khartoum is heavily fortified, with bunkers at the airport and .50-caliber machine guns on the streets. It has been spared the messy conflicts that have been raging in Sudan’s hinterlands because the central government, dominated by a tight cadre of Arab military men with a history of support for Islamic militants, has used oil profits and Chinese weapons to build a formidable defense force.
Beyond the fact that the rebels, part of the Justice and Equality Movement, also known as JEM, tried to attack at all, the most surprising aspect of the attack was how far they got. After steaming across the desert in a phalanx of battered pickup trucks on Saturday, they came within a few miles of Khartoum.
“What was JEM trying to do?” asked David Mozersky, a Sudan analyst for International Crisis Group, a research institute that follows conflict zones throughout the world. “It’s hard to imagine they thought they could capture the capital with 50 to 100 cars.”
John Prendergast, a founder of the Enough Project, which campaigns against genocide, said he thinks the attack was a ploy to gain leverage. The rebels wanted “to slap” the governing National Congress Party, he said, “then cut a power sharing deal with the ruling party, without the other Darfur factions.”
“We’re seeing in part a continuation of the internal battle between Islamist factions,” he said, referring to the fact that both the Darfurian rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement and Sudanese government officials, though sworn enemies, share an Islamist agenda.
If the attack were meant to send a signal, it was one that cost dozens of lives, according to residents of Khartoum’s suburbs, who saw bodies of rebel fighters still sprawled out in the streets on Sunday morning.
Sudan has long been a hornets’ nest of bitter, warring factions. To begin with, the government is an awkward fusion of two warring parties, the National Congress Party and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. These two sides fought a civil war for more than 20 years in southern Sudan that killed an estimated 2.2 million people, almost 10 times as many as in Darfur.
After a landmark peace deal in 2005 that the Bush administration helped broker, the National Congress Party became the senior partner, but the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement , which represents the Christian and animist south, won some powerful posts, like the foreign ministry and first vice presidency; it also commands its own military.
Layer on top of this divide more than 20 heavily armed Darfurian rebel groups, some who have negotiated with the government, some who continue to fight it and some who have recently been fighting with each other. Then add the rebel outfits in the north, east and south of the country, and it’s easy to appreciate how the attack on Saturday, however quixotic, could have lit the fuse under many of Sudan’s simmering tensions.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Darfurian rebels share many of the same objectives, like addressing the historic marginalization of Sudan’s hinterlands. In many ways, the discontented southerners and the discontented Darfurians seem like natural partners.
But on Sunday, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement leadership made clear whose side it was on.
Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of South Sudan and the first vice president of the national unity government, condemned the attack, saying it would not help resolve the Darfur crisis.
His military commanders issued a statement saying that they were ready to back up the national government.
Besides not helping the Darfurian fighters, the attack could end up undermining them. Not only did it seem to bring the National Congress Party and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement closer, it may have cost them popular support.
“I am Darfurian,” said Ishag Adam Bashir, a member of Parliament aligned with the unity government. “I know what’s going on out there. People in Darfur are suffering. Attacking Khartoum isn’t going to help them.”
Mr. Ishag said the attack showed the Justice and Equality Movement’s true colors.
“Clearly, JEM isn’t interested in Darfur anymore,” he said. “They are using Darfur as a way to challenge the government here, but they have nothing to do with Darfur issues.”
Leaders of the Justice and Equality Movement have said they attacked Khartoum as a way to bring their battle directly to the government.
There is no doubt that there will be some sort of government crackdown. It seems to have already started. Residents said that roadblocks had popped up all across Khartoum on Sunday, with soldiers boarding buses, checking identity cards and escorting male Darfurians into jail cells.
The rebels who were not arrested or killed seemed to have disappeared, either having melded into the capital population or returning to Darfur.
There were also reports, including by an American official in the region, that mid-level Sudanese Army officers had been arrested for helping the rebels, which could signify a split in the security services.
The Sudanese government had its own theory about the attack, which bore an uncanny resemblance to a recent strike on Sudan’s equally troubled neighbor, Chad. In February, Chadian rebels who had been using Sudan as a base nearly overran the presidential palace in Ndjamena, Chad’s capital. And it was fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement, which has close ties to Chad, who helped protect the palace.
So it was no surprise that the first thing the Sudanese government did on Sunday was to break off relations with Chad, which Sudanese officials accused of backing the rebels and trying to pull off a coup. “The return favor was bigger than expected,” Mr. Prendergast said.
Izzadine Abdul Rasoul Muhammad contributed reporting from Khartoum, Sudan.