Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's president, is a master of delay. He's fooled a world (eager to be fooled) into thinking he is about to accept UN peacekeepers to stop the killing in Darfur. Once everyone seems convinced, he reverses himself. Al-Bashir is buying wasted time for a failed military effort to crush Darfur's separatist insurgents in a war that is mowing down civilians by the thousands instead.
The world wants to be fooled because it has no intention of intervening to stop the genocide, so it engages in a macabre dance with al-Bashir.
The latest manifestation of this game is The Letter: the letter that has UN headquarters buzzing. Al-Bashir told Secretary General Ban Ki-moon he would answer in writing a request to deploy several thousand UN troops and later a hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping force.
The UN has been told al-Bashir signed the letter and it's on its way. It's been on its way for two weeks.
So I bump into Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, Sudan's ambassador to the UN, in a corridor on the UN press floor. He's holding a piece of paper in his hand.
"Is that the letter?" I ask.
"The letter. The letter. That's all anybody is asking about. The letter," he said.
"So there is no letter," I said.
"Yes, it's on its way," he responded.
"What's it gonna say?"
"Look," the ambassador says. "The UN has not even completed the first phase of this deployment. They've only sent 50% of it. And the British are already talking about the hybrid force."
(The first phase is supposed to be a light deployment of around 100 civilian police and military observers. The second phase is 3,000 UN troops, police and civilians; the third phase is the 22,000-strong hybrid UN-AU force).
The ambassador is saying the UN doesn't even have the personnel for the first phase. It's just the delay Sudan needs. The UN can't get its act together, so please don't bother us and let us get on with our little war.
Meanwhile, concern is mounting that the weak, AU force of 7,500 men already deployed in Darfur will collapse in June because of a lack of money. That would plunge the area, already beset by mass murder and a refugee crisis, into total chaos.
"There is frustration in the Security Council on Darfur, we don't seem to have a way out," Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa's UN ambassador, admitted to me. "It's a going to be a long-term process and there is a great fear that in June the AU is going to leave and if they leave there will be nobody."
Their departure would almost certainly compel humanitarian aid organizations, already under pressure to get out, to pack up and leave four million Darfurians at the mercy of government troops and Janjaweed militias.
"Humanitarian organizations, both private and the UN, have declared in the most public way that they are at the end of the rope, they can't operate under the present insecurity," Eric Reeves, the Smith College professor who has become perhaps the leading American specialist on Darfur, told me.
"I can guarantee you that if the AU leaves, every humanitarian organization in Darfur will leave," Reeves said.
Gone would be witnesses who exercise some restraint on the killing, he said. Camps would likely be bulldozed and refugees "subject to large-scale massacres that would be completely unrecorded," Reeves said.
Around 200,000 civilians have already perished and 2.5 million more have been made homeless since government forces and the allied Janjaweed began fighting rebellious tribes, struggling for independence, three years ago.
A UN estimate last year indicated that as many as 150,000 people a month could die if all humanitarian aid ended, Reeves told me.
The Security Council has approved the deployment of the more powerful 22,000-man hybrid UN-AU force to replace the weak AU contingent.
But the UN is still waiting for the letter.
Bashir is stalling on accepting the UN troops, but it might not matter since the absence of committed personnel to the UN's first phase, let alone the hybrid force, is handing Bashir the excuse to buy all the time he needs to continue the bloodshed.
The world is also having a hard time paying for even the weaker AU mission, which costs $40 million a month. The Arab league has pitched in $15 million. The U.S. and Europe will have to cough up the rest to keep the AU troops on the ground, as they have previously, when money ran out.
There is incentive to pay to keep the AU force going because it relieves pressure on the West to mount a military mission to stop the killings that even the State Department reluctantly terms "genocide," according to Reeves.
"The international community, precisely because it is not willing to intervene, would fund the African Union as a fig leaf," he said. "There is zero chance of an intervention. We are going to watch, just like in Rwanda."
By bailing out the AU mission, Europe and the U.S. would also prop up Khartoum's relatively strong strategic position. "The AU leaving changes the status quo and the status quo right now is for Khartoum just fine," Colin Thomas-Jensen, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told me.
If the AU and aid agencies left it could force the international community to confront the prospect of watching 4.5 million people denied a chance to survive, Reeves said. "Khartoum realizes that might catalyze international action," he said. "They want everybody on edge, but not to go over the edge."
That means they want everybody to keep waiting for the letter.
Khartoum is stalling because the poorly equipped AU force is no threat, while a stronger AU-UN force would in effect protect the rebels.
But even without a UN presence Khartoum is fooling itself, hanging on to dwindling hopes of a military victory. "Rebels have really pounded government forces in north Darfur," Reeves said and they now possess anti-aircraft weaponry.
"I don't think Khartoum is pursuing military victory in the way it thought it could," he said. "They have now concluded that they will just let a grim, genocide by attrition proceed indefinitely. Ultimately they will starve the rebels"--and the population.
Around 80% to 90% of Darfur villages have already been destroyed.
Among analysts there is a divergence of views about the Bush administration's intentions in all this. Some believe the administration is backing Khartoum and others the rebels, wanting the UN force deployed to help the U.S.'s long-term interests in Darfur. There is disagreement over reports of oil and uranium there.
Emira Woods, an analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies, accused the administration of giving the "red carpet treatment" to Sudanese government officials who routinely visit the U.S. capital.
"Last (month), senior Sudanese government and intelligence officials were here in Washington and essentially all of the U.S. talk of ending the genocide has led to no action or pressure on the Sudanese government," Woods said.
This was because the U.S. was interested in "oil deals", despite current U.S. sanctions on Sudan, and advancing its war on terror, she said. Woods sees two Bush administration goals: doubling U.S. oil imports from Africa and setting up a new military command on the continent, AFRICOM, to fight terrorism.
Reeves disagrees about the oil. "There are no valuable resources in Darfur , there is only a political threat to Khartoum's continued dominance of national wealth and power."
Backing Khartoum on the Security Council have been Russia, because of arms sales, and China, with oil concessions and a host of other economic interests. Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, visited Khartoum at the end of January and told the media he pressured al-Bashir to accept the UN-AU force. But Hu also gave al-Bashir an easy loan to build himself another palace, said Thomas-Jensen.
In the meantime, al-Bashir continues to skillfully read the international community's intentions and draw willing foreign leaders into his stalling game. In November he agreed to accept the UN-AU hybrid force. But he changed his mind a month later saying the AU troops could do the job.
Since then, whenever al-Bashir sits down with foreign officials who journey to tell him he must accept the more robust force, he routinely promises that he will. Then, sometimes just hours afterward, his foreign minister or another official will announce he has no such intentions.
"It is stunning that after four years of broken promises senior level officials continue to go to Khartoum, sit with senior Sudanese officials, hear them say what they are going to do, trumpet the meeting as a great success and then not bother to react when the next day the government of Sudan simply refutes what it said the day before," said Thomas-Jensen.
"Right now they are running diplomatic circles around Western diplomats," he added. "They feel like they can say and do anything without facing any consequences."
After Ban ki-Moon met with al-Bashir at the AU summit in Addis Ababa at the end of January, Ban told the media he had "useful and constructive talks" and was looking "forward to a prompt and positive response" to his request that the UN-AU force be accepted.
Later that day, the Sudanese foreign minister went on television to denounce the plan and said a UN force would never set foot in Darfur.
"When Ban traveled to Addis Ababa he talked about the urgency of the situation, then he met al-Bashir, came away with nothing and counseled patience," said Reeves. "Something obviously happened in that meeting, and it was that Ban Ki-moon came face to face with the defiance that is the National Islamic front regime in Khartoum."
"We are definitely being strung along," a UN official in New York admitted to me. "But right now what can we do?"
It's obvious. Wait for the letter.