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KHARTOUM, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Sudan has just four months to prepare a referendum in which people from the south of the country will decide whether they want to secede from the north and form the world's newest nation.
But years of delays have left the referendum's organising commission with what many call a mission impossible. Here are some possible scenarios surrounding the vote.
The Jan. 9, 2011 date for the referendum that will determine the future of Africa's largest country is a red line for the south's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). Most analysts agree the south will vote for secession and emotions are running high in the semi-autonomous oil-producing region.
The SPLM knows time is short to prepare a credible referendum. But it says the northern National Congress Party (NCP) has stalled on the vote since the 2005 peace deal that ended the long war between the north and south. The plebiscite is intended to be the culmination of that accord.
The SPLM believes that agreeing to a delay would just bring more stalling, and would be political suicide for the party. The SPLM predicts a delay could provoke violent demonstrations by southerners which it may not be able to control.
If a delay is necessary, an announcement a week or two ahead of the vote, citing logistical problems, would be more acceptable than announcing a delay now. Any delay could not be more than a few weeks, in order to appease southerners bent on the self-determination they have fought for since 1955.
This is the worst-case scenario but still a possibility as the referendum commission formed at the end of June has had less than six months to plan the vote.
Observers believe the voter registration does not begin in October, there will not be time to organise the plebiscite.
The SPLM has already said that if the referendum does not take place, the 2005 accord allows it to use other means to express its right to self-determination. The party has also said that the south's parliament could take over the referendum in the south or vote itself on whether to secede or not.
The success of such a move would depend largely on whether it is accepted by the international community, given the number of complaints of intimidation and fraud in the south during parliamentary and other elections in April.
But given the obstacles to holding the plebiscite on time, it is likely the world will have to accept such a vote if there is no referendum.
However the north would also have to recognise such a vote, because 98 percent of the south's budget depends on oil revenues sent from Khartoum. Much of Sudan's 6 billion barrels of crude reserves lie south of the border but the oil distribution network is in the north, which makes the two parts of the country economically interdependent.
If the north does not recognise a vote to separate, it could turn off the oil taps which would create an immediate disaster for the landlocked south.
People in the south will qualify to vote, and so too should millions of southern Sudanese living in the north or abroad.
But a shortage of time and a lack of any clear method to determine whether these members of the diaspora qualify as southerners means the plebiscite may happen only in the south.
That could alienate the north, which feels many southerners living in Khartoum may vote for unity.
But the south has at least 8 million residents who are expected to favour secession, a clear majority over those living outside the south. So it will be hard to argue that the result of a vote held solely in the south should not be accepted.
The southern referendum is meant to take place at the same time as a plebiscite in the disputed oil-producing Abyei region on whether it should join the north or south. But a deadlock over the composition of that referendum's electoral commission means it is unlikely to happen on time, if at all.
While there is a wall of mistrust separating the NCP and SPLM after years of bickering over implementation of the 2005 accord, it is not in the economic interests of either side to return to conflict.
There are however still many disputed issues surrounding the referendum which could push the delicate balance over the edge.
Analysts have warned that both north and south Sudan's armies have been re-arming in the build-up to the vote.
The referendum is filled with emotion for both northerners and southerners and the lack of clarity on the status of citizenship, wealth sharing, the resource-rich north-south border and the oil areas are all potential flashpoints which could mean a return to conflict if not handled with care.
If the two parties cannot resolve these disputes they could provoke clashes between local communities. These could drag north and south back to the cycle of war they have endured since 1955 and which could again disrupt surrounding countries.
In Sudan politicians seem to favour brinkmanship and have a habit of leaving things to the last minute. Dire predictions about Sudan are usually tempered by the underlying desire of both the SPLM and the NCP not to return to war.
Long-delayed decisions by the two parties over issues such as the north-south border and citizenship could be made at the last minute to avoid a return to conflict. This may well be the case with the referendum's logistical stumbling blocks too.
The NCP is likely to realise it cannot stop the vote and will eventually allow it to take place to avoid violent protests from southerners which could drag the two sides back to war.
Many observers agree the most likely scenario will be a last minute scramble to hold a hasty and not entirely credible referendum only in the south in January, which everyone will have to recognise because there will be little other choice.
That vote is likely to favour secession and Sudan then enters a six-month transition period until July 9, 2011 to make arrangements to create two new countries. (Editing by Giles Elgood)