With the International Criminal Court considering a request to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's political parties - often at odds with the government - have come to the president's defense.  As Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the parties have little sympathy for the country's leader, but see potential political benefits from cooperation.

From the mid-1980s, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, a rebel group based in the country's south, waged a two-decade insurgency against the national government in Khartoum.  Southerners resented what they saw as an overwhelming concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the government in Khartoum. The government's bombing raids and recruitment of Arab militias further increased southern hostility to the ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, and its leader, President Omar al-Bashir.

So when International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo last month requested an arrest warrant for President Bashir, one might have expected the rebels, known by the acronym SPLM, to greet the news with enthusiasm.

But since a 2005 peace agreement, the SPLM and the NCP, have been sharing power in a national unity government, and the former rebels are the ruling party in a semi-autonomous southern region. Despite continued tensions between the two parties that have threatened to derail the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, as the deal is known, the SPLM is still committed to its implementation.

Whatever their private reactions, SPLM officials have so far joined President Bashir in criticizing the possibility of his indictment.

"They say we have an agreement with them, we want to implement the CPA and al-Bashir is our partner," said Hafiz Mohammed, who directs the Sudan program at Justice Africa in London. "Any changes in the positions of the president or the structure of the government might affect the implementation of the CPA, that's why we are supporting him."

The 2005 agreement calls for national elections next year, and a referendum on southern secession in 2011. While the SPLM has been frustrated with the NCP's cooperation in implementing the deal, the former rebels are concerned that an indictment of its partner in the agreement could be even riskier.

Minister for presidential affairs in the southern government, Luka Biong, says the discussion of the president's indictment could encourage the government to come to an "amicable solution" on the situation of the conflict in Darfur and the dispute over implementing provisions of the north-south agreement, including delineating the north-south border and organizing fair elections next year.

He says the NCP is divided between hardliners and those more amenable to cooperation.

"There are forces that believe it his high time for the National Congress Party to open up to work very closely with the SPLM and also to engage the international community," he said. "Equally there are forces who believe that these ones are challenging the leadership of NCP and it has deliberate intentions to expose the NCP not only internationally even locally given the fact now that we are going for elections.

There are indications that the National Congress Party may be taking a more cooperative approach. The two sides agreed this weekend to a national conference to address the conflict in Darfur. And on Friday, the two sides agreed to a new administration for the disputed border area of Abyei, long one of the main issues of contention in implementing the 2005 deal.

But the south is still eyeing the north warily. Mr. Biong, who visited Abyei with U.S. Congressman Donald Payne following Friday's agreement, says the north has not yet followed through on its pledge to remove its forces from the area.

"What we have seen is Sudan Armed Forces have not moved out of the area as we have agreed upon,." he said. "Secondly, the police are not being deployed. And even the Joint Integrated Units that we have agreed to should be deployed to the area not being supported."

In the North, the Umma Party, led by Sadiq al-Mahdi, has also long been in tension with President Bashir's NCP. But shortly before Mr. Ocampo's announcement, the Umma Party, which is even more wary of a national government led by the SPLM, reached an agreement on political cooperation with the NCP.

The Umma Party has backed the government's calls for the U.N. Security Council to delay consideration of the request for an arrest warrant.

Mohammed, of Justice Africa, says the party may be hoping to gain a more prominent position in a coalition with the NCP ahead of next year's elections.

"Sadiq al-Mahdi is very cunning. Publicly he says yes, we are against the indictment of the president, he's not against the ICC principles because he supports the ICC process, but he's against indicting al-Bashir," he said. "But he's happy to see al-Bashir indicted because he's going to have a weak party now he can then impose his will on them. In public yes, he pretends that he's standing with them, supporting them, but we know that in private he's really happy to see him indicted."

The Umma Party has also supported a national conference on Darfur, as well as a broader national conference of Sudanese political actors to address the problems facing the country. Mariam al-Mahdi, a spokesperson for the party, says she also believes the ICC controversy will likely make the NCP more cooperative.

"We believe this is a very opportune time for us to make this breakthrough. Ultimately I expect this crisis to make them more sober and to make them more committed," she said. "At the same time the neck of the president himself is at stake. "

Mohammed says the party that has been most receptive to the possibility of an ICC indictment is the Popular Congress Party, which unlike the Umma Party of the SPLM, has not entered into any agreements with the government.

While Popular Congress leader Hassan al-Turabi has advocated a truth-and-reconciliation process as an alternative to the ICC, party officials have also criticized government efforts to try Darfur cases locally and have even accused the government of genocide.

The NCP, for its part, has accused the Popular Congress - its former allies in the Islamist regime that came to power in a 1989 coup - of "igniting" the conflict in Darfur and of cooperating with rebels.