KHARTOUM, Sudan — A year ago, on his first visit to the United States, rebel leader Minni Minnawi met President Bush in the Oval Office and pledged to build support for a fledgling, U.S.-backed peace agreement in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
Minnawi was the only one of three rebel leaders to sign the May 2006 accord with the government of Sudan. His decision was almost universally panned in Darfur and has had little impact as the fighting enters a fifth year.
Worse, the most serious violence no longer comes from the Arab janjaweed militias armed by the government of Sudan, which the Bush administration has accused of genocide, but from the rebels themselves, including members of Minnawi's own faction of the Sudan Liberation Army.
It's a testament to the grim chaos of Darfur that the leading rebel group to commit to peace may now be its greatest obstacle. Minnawi loyalists are suspected in several high-profile attacks on humanitarian workers and African Union peacekeepers that have greatly undermined the international community's ability to look after the 2.2 million Darfurians living in refugee camps.
Minnawi has pledged to support the much larger, United Nations-led peacekeeping force that the U.N. Security Council authorized this week, though it's not expected to arrive for months. Relations between Minnawi's group and African Union peacekeepers are badly strained.
In May, Minnawi's fighters were involved in a road accident with African Union vehicles that led to a shootout in which one SLA member was killed. The fighters promptly seized 13 of the peacekeepers' cars, which they have yet to return.
In the worst attack on aid workers, suspected Minnawi supporters raided a housing compound in southern Darfur in December, raping a French woman and subjecting others to mock executions. The incident prompted the British charity Oxfam to end its operations in the nearby refugee camp of Gereida, Darfur's largest, which houses 130,000 people.
U.N. humanitarian officials said aid workers can't reach more than 500,000 of Darfur's displaced people due to the threat of carjackings and kidnappings by rebel groups such as Minnawi's.
In an interview, Minnawi refused to discuss the incidents, saying only that his group is dedicated to the peace agreement. But he blamed much of the insecurity in Darfur on others within the rebel movement, which has split into at least 16 different factions as rival commanders grow disenchanted with prospects for peace.
"They are spoilers," Minnawi said of those groups. "They have no principles, no political aims."
Diplomats are meeting with leaders of the splinter groups this week in Tanzania to try to forge a common platform before new peace talks with Sudan. Those groups say that the 2006 agreement was fatally flawed, offering too little compensation for war victims and no guarantee that the perpetrators of the worst atrocities — the government-backed janjaweed — would be disarmed.
Experts believe that the young, politically inexperienced Minnawi was bullied by high-powered diplomats, led by then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who were eager for a deal after months of negotiations. Minnawi commanded the strongest fighting force, so mediators pursued his signature over the others.
It earned him a fancy title in the Sudanese government as "senior assistant to the president" and a post as the head of a Transitional Darfur Redevelopment Authority, which comes with a plush office in the capital filled with overstuffed leather sofas and bright plastic flowers. But the government has released little money to the agency, and Minnawi often complains that he can't get anything done.
"I think he feels really frustrated," said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "He's sitting in Khartoum, he's not in control of the political process and he's not in control of his forces on the ground."
Sudanese politicians said that international mediators placed too much faith in Minnawi's ability to rally others in Darfur. As a member of the minority Zaghawa ethnic group, Minnawi is regarded with deep skepticism by the larger Fur group.
"They committed a major mistake — especially the U.S. leadership — by trying to box all the parties in Darfur into the agreement," said Sadiq al Mahdi, a Sudanese opposition leader. "It was obvious that signing it was only going to isolate the signatories."
But Minnawi defended the agreement, saying the international community has failed to pressure Sudan to implement its terms, including providing money to rebuild Darfur.
"We need projects. We need development," he said. "Otherwise the fighting will continue." Testily, he added that he told Zoellick and the other mediators last May that the peace agreement wasn't perfect.
"Everyone knows my reservations," he said. "But I chose to stop the bloodshed."
Anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people are believed to have perished in Darfur since the war began, most from starvation and disease.