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U.S. Relationship with Sudan a Balancing Act

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There's been a change since Condoleezza Rice took over at the State Department. The US has been toning down its rhetoric on Darfur, Sudan. It has backed off from using the word `genocide.' And the White House recently urged Congress to water down legislation that calls for targeted sanctions against those responsible for atrocities. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, many activists and lawmakers are wondering why, since it was the Bush administration that called the killing in Darfur a genocide in the first place.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

The recent signals coming from the Bush administration so angered Congressman Donald Payne that he, another Democrat and two Republicans wrote to Secretary of State Rice to find out why the US is changing its tone on Darfur.

Representative DONALD PAYNE (Democrat, New Jersey): We are very disturbed at the new policy of the administration, sort of a wink-and-a-nod policy, that is seen to be in play now. We have seen a number of examples of it.

KELEMEN: First among them, he said, was Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's recent trip to Sudan. Payne and others have accused Zoellick of understating the estimated death toll in the conflict and backing off from calling it a genocide, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell did last fall. Zoellick told reporters recently he did not intend to change the US position on this.

Mr. ROBERT ZOELLICK (Deputy Secretary of State): Frankly, what I was trying to do was to say whether it's genocide, as we found in the past, whether it's crimes against humanity, as the UN has found--either is kind of enough for me to be trying to work on the issue. And so I'm trying to avoid sort of having the debate be on the labels and have--instead focus attention on the policy.

KELEMEN: Which, he adds, is not easy.

Mr. ZOELLICK: This is a devil of a difficult problem. It's going to be extremely hard to move this forward.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration's former envoy to Sudan and former ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, is sympathetic. He spent many frustrating days trying to push for UN Security Council resolutions on Darfur and says there's still a lot of work to be done to increase the number of African Union monitors there. All the while, he says, the US has to pay attention to other aspects of its relationship with Sudan.

Former Ambassador JOHN DANFORTH (Former US Ambassador to the UN): We do have two different concerns about Sudan. One is to try to solidify last January's north-south peace agreement, which ended the civil war that had been going on for more than 20 years. It was a very considerable accomplishment. So it's been, at once, very promising with respect to north-south and very troubling with respect to Darfur.

KELEMEN: Danforth doesn't believe the US is softening its position on Sudan. He said even when he was special envoy, he had to balance the many US interests in the country, including the need for better intelligence-sharing. The Los Angeles Times reported that the head of Sudan's intelligence service was recently brought to Washington for meetings. A Congressional Research Service report describes Salah Abdallah Gosh as a key player in the Darfur campaign who coordinated the recruitment and training of militias. Congressman Payne was furious with the news.

Rep. PAYNE: This person, who was the one that welcomed Osama bin Laden, the one that has commandeered the Janjaweed--to fly him first class here to the United States, to Washington, DC, and to fly him back in a luxury jet back to Khartoum, it's disgraceful.

KELEMEN: CIA officials said they wouldn't comment on countries with which they have relations. But the State Department's most recent report on terrorism did make note of Sudan's stepped-up cooperation. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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