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The Obama administration is stacked with officials who have talked tough about ending what they call genocide in the Darfur, Sudan. But its special envoy on Sudan is now questioning the need to keep the Khartoum government on a terrorism sanctions list.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When retired Air Force Major General Scott Gration was picked as the special envoy on Sudan, he had an immediate crisis on his plate. Sudan had just kicked out more than a dozen humanitarian groups in Darfur and he was supposed to coax the government to let them back in. And so began a new effort to engage Khartoum.

Gration told senators this past week that he thinks his efforts are paying off and he even held out an olive branch to Sudan saying it doesn't really deserve to be on the State Department's terrorism list.

Major General SCOTT GRATION: There's no evidence in our intelligence community that supports being on the state sponsor of terrorism. It's a political decision. What we have found, though, is the consequences of the sanctions are preventing from doing the development that we absolutely need to do.

KELEMEN: Gration added that Sudan has been helpful in counter-terrorism efforts including against al-Qaida. Sudan was once home to Osama bin Laden. Senator Russ Feingold, the Democrat from Wisconsin, fired back saying Sudan's cooperation is always overstated in this area and he encouraged Gration to keep sanctions and pressure points on the table in his dealings with Khartoum.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin) Can you assure this committee that the administration is actively accessing the viability of meaningful punitive actions and preparing them in the event that the government of Sudan continues its historic foot dragging and, of course, that has been the hallmark of their record.

Major General GRATION: There's no question. And I'd be happy to come up and brief you in a more secure environment on what those are. But I believe we have a very balanced approach that includes both incentives and includes pressures.

KELEMEN: Just don't ask him about carrots and sticks as I did in the corridor outside the hearing room.

Major General GRATION: You know, carrots and sticks are great for leading donkeys. This is much more complicated.

KELEMEN: Activists on Darfur are worried about this seemingly softer approach. Jerry Fowler of the Save Darfur Coalition says the U.S. should not be played by the Sudanese.

Mr. JERRY FOWLER (President, Save Darfur Coalition): They took this incredibly cruel and callous step of expelling humanitarian organizations in March. And the process that we've mostly seen since then is them gradually easing up on that, and all we are doing is expending a lot of effort to get back to a status quo that was unacceptable and unsustainable in the first place.

KELEMEN: The head of the Enough project, John Norris says he expected more from this administration.

Mr. JOHN NORRIS (Executive Director, Enough): If you look at North Korea, you look at Iran, this administration has done a very good job of doing the hard, slow slog of diplomacy, going around to different capitals, making a case why a tough response is needed. And I think that has really been missing on Sudan and I think it'll be very much welcome.

KELEMEN: But Norris says the Obama administration first has to resolve internal dispute that have reportedly been holding up its policy review. The U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, has described the situation in Darfur as an ongoing genocide.

But Scott Gration has a different point of view. Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi pressed him on this dispute at Thursday's hearing.

Senator Roger WICKER (Republican, Mississippi): In your opinion, are we dealing now only with the remnants of a genocide that is over?

Major General GRATION: I'm not saying that genocide's over. What I'm saying, though, is that my focus is on recovery. Sir, I've been a refugee myself. We lost everything we owned when we left Congo. I don't want people to go through that kind of situation.

KELEMEN: The son of missionaries, Gration grew up in Africa and said he's passionate about ending the suffering in Darfur no matter what you call it. But words matter for Senator Wicker who said that if the U.S. believes it is ongoing genocide, the U.S. should take a tougher stand with the government of Sudan.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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