Is Darfur still a genocide? White House isn't sure.

President Obama's special envoy to Sudan told senators Thursday that the designation is no longer applicable. But others in the administration disagree.

Jim Watson/ AFP/ Newscom/ File
In this file photo, Sudan Special Envoy General Scott Gration (l.) is pictured here with President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington. Gration told senators Thursday that the "genocide" label is no longer accurate or helpful.

The Obama administration's internal debate about whether or not the term "genocide" still applies to conditions in Sudan's Darfur region has spilled into public view.

President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, Gen. Scott Gration (USAF, retd.), told senators Thursday that the "genocide" label is no longer accurate or helpful.

"There's significant difference between what happened in 2004 and 2003, which we characterized as a genocide, and what is happening today," General Gration said in testimony.

There is no evidence to support the inclusion of Sudan on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, he added. That designation only hinders the international community's ability to help rebuild the war-torn county and to help thousands of uprooted families living in camps.

Gration acknowledged ongoing differences within the administration over Darfur and Sudan, calling it an "honest debate" and a "definitional issue." The debate is part of a comprehensive Sudan policy review within the administration that stalled last month over how the White House should balance incentives and punishments to get the most cooperation from Khartoum.

The administration debate pits Gration against Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who US officials say was "furious" when Gration spoke about the "remnants of genocide" last month.

That comment followed a statement by Mr. Obama in Germany about an "ongoing genocide" in Darfur.

In her own testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Ambassador Rice steered away from the genocide controversy.

"The United States is deeply committed to two critical things in Sudan," she said. "One is effective implementation of the north/south peace agreement, the CPA. And the other is saving lives and ending the suffering in Darfur."

Making special mention of Gration's work, she said, "we are committed to doing our utmost to achieve success in both regards."

But State Department officials say the debate continues – specifically between the State Department and the National Security Council – over how best to "go forward" in Sudan. One official said it was safe to assume that Rice would frown on Gration's comments Thursday.

In response to Gration's comments Thursday in the Senate, Darfur advocacy groups in Washington generally praised the idea of using incentives and punishments to try to influence Khartoum. But they were skeptical that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir intends to work honestly with the international community.

"We are encouraged to hear unequivocally from General Gration that he and the Obama administration are pursuing a balanced approach which includes both carrots and sticks as levers to change Khartoum's behavior," said Save Darfur coalition President Jerry Fowler in a statement. "We are, however, seriously doubtful of Khartoum's true intention and ability to make good on their promises."

Gration's assessment that US sanctions on Sudan are counterproductive and are preventing assistance to the country's most needy drew a mixed reaction from senators.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin said reports of President Bashir's cooperation were "overstated." But Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee said continuing sanctions were the equivalent of "cutting out nose off to spite our face."


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