Sudan's Bashir retires as army chief before vote
By Opheera McDoom
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir retired as commander-in-chief of the army, state media said on Monday, in what sources said was a procedural move before the first multi-party elections in 24 years.
"President Omar Hassan al-Bashir today issued a decree retiring (himself as) the commander-in-chief of the armed forces," state news agency SUNA said. It mentioned no replacement.
Official nominations for the April elections will begin on Tuesday and analysts have said Bashir was trying to distance himself from his military past before his nomination by the dominant National Congress Party (NCP).
"This decree and the timing of it can be read in the context of his nomination expected tomorrow for the presidential elections," one source in the presidency told Reuters.
Another added: "This is only because of the elections -- it is just a procedure."
Elections to parliament and state governorships will be held at the same time as the presidential vote.
The deputy head of Sudan's elections commission said there was no requirement in the election law for Bashir to resign his military post.
Opposition Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi belittled the move: "He has already pretty much delegated this job to his defense minister," he told Reuters.
"His people close to him are very much so loyal and so close to him... that he will just appoint one of them as the chief and it won't matter much," added Turabi, who split from Bashir's party in 1999/2000.
RISK OF VIOLENCE
The elections precede a referendum in southern Sudan on January 9, 2011 on whether to secede from the north. Many Sudanese question whether it is worth holding an expensive election just nine months before the referendum.
Sudan's two-decade north-south civil war, fought over religion, ethnicity, ideology and oil, claimed 2 million lives and drove 4 million from their homes.
Major delays in implementing a 2005 north-south peace deal have created distrust, and most analysts agree the south is likely to vote to separate.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Bashir last year for war crimes in Sudan's western region of Darfur.
The NCP, who reject any cooperation with the ICC, is desperate to win the presidential vote to legitimize Bashir and his government.
After a mass publicity campaign portraying the ICC arrest warrant as a Western conspiracy to destabilize Sudan, Bashir is expected to be the front-runner in the elections.
Opposition parties have accused the NCP of buying votes, intimidation and widespread fraud in the voter registration process which ended last month, which the party denies.
Bashir's security adviser Salah Gosh warned of a risk of organized violence in the elections, especially in the oil-producing Abyei and South Kordofan regions, according to SUNA on Monday.
"We may see some violence trying to derail the electoral process...and that will likely be organized violence," he said.
He warned the tense South Kordofan and Abyei states could be hard hit. They saw heavy fighting during the civil war and have also endured clashes since the 2005 peace deal.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)