By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Salva Kiir's reputation as the quiet man of Sudanese politics, with an eccentric taste in cowboy hats, masks a wily operator who is about to steer his impoverished region into full statehood on July 9.
The president of South Sudan, backed by a small group of capable deputies, has spent the past five years locking horns with the region's old enemies in Khartoum, laying the groundwork for most southerners' long dream of independence.
When north and south Sudan ended decades of civil war with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, both sides officially agreed to campaign to persuade southerners to stay united with the north. But it was an open secret that Kiir, and the vast majority of southerners, had their heart set on a divorce.
By most standards, the build-up to that split on July 9 has been bloody and disastrous. Thousands of people have died inside south Sudan over the past two years - in "tribal" clashes. The south says northern-backed militias provoked the violence. Khartoum denies the accusation.
Sudan's northern and southern-backed armies are also still facing off in flashpoints along their ill-defined shared border - including in the oil-producing northern region of Southern Kordofan and the contested Abyei area.
But compared to the bloodshed Sudan has seen over past decades, the fact that south Sudan has got this close to independence is in part due to Kiir's unassuming, consensus-building skills, analysts say.
DEALING WITH RENEGADES
When Kiir first stepped up as the leader of the semi- autonomous south in 2005, many compared him unfavorably with his firebrand predecessor, the civil war hero John Garang.
But Kiir, the former head of the military wing of the south's dominant Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), has concentrated on keeping his fragmented region united.
He has repeatedly offered amnesties and pardons to a rash of renegade militia leaders who have sprung up over the past year.
During north-south confrontations over Abyei and other hotspots, Kiir was quick to say he had no intention of going back to war, welcome news to the United States and others in the West that shepherded the peace deal through.
Kiir, a regular worshipper at Juba's Catholic cathedral, has been good at bringing old foes into the SPLM and the southern army. But worries remain about the ability of his party to accept rivals who insist on staying outside the fold.
International observers accused the SPLM and southern army officers of intimidation of opposition groups during last year's national elections.
Southern journalists have also complained about harassment, particularly when articles tackle corruption or some of the south's more eccentric development projects.
So far Kiir, in his late 50s, has kept himself insulated from accusations made against more confrontational supporters.
His quiet approach and lack of polarizing rhetoric could now be his main strengths in governing a landlocked territory handicapped by tribal divisions, severe poverty, unstable neighbors and huge supplies of privately held weapons.