WASHINGTON — Human rights groups working to end the dying in Darfur fear for the survival of 2.5 million people huddled in refugee camps if the Obama administration doesn't put on record its plans to bring security to them.
The administration said Thursday it still considers the Darfur problem genocide. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley emphasized that to counter a comment by President Barack Obama's special envoy on Sudan, retired Air Force Gen. Scott Gration.
Gration said Wednesday from the same State Department podium that what is being seen in the vast Western Sudan region now are "the remnants of genocide" and "the consequences of genocide, the results of genocide."
Obama himself had spoken recently of "ongoing genocide" in Darfur, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, a Cabinet-level official, repeated in a speech Monday that genocide is being waged.
Although Gration's comments caught leaders of Darfur advocacy groups by surprise, they are more worried about the lack of a clear-cut U.S. policy than a semantic mistake by the special envoy.
Alex Meixner, director of policy and government relations for the Save Darfur Coalition, said Obama considers the situation genocide, and "he's the decider."
Meixner said in an interview that he thinks the verbal contretemps probably were overblown.
"I don't think they are at odds where they want to get, but in terms of semantics, this is sort of a red herring," he said. Genocide or not, he said, "everybody in Darfur has been purposefully on the brink of death for years."
Hundreds of thousands of Darfuris have died since rebels rose in early 2003 and were countered viciously by forces that the United States and other governments say were sponsored by the President Omar al-Bashir's Sudanese government. Millions have been displaced by the violence or have fled across borders into Chad or the Central African Republic.
In Khartoum, Ali Youssef, a senior Foreign Ministry official speaking before Crowley disavowed Gration's statement, praised the envoy for saying the Sudanese government was no longer engaged in genocide.
"There was no genocide at all from the beginning," Youssef said. "There was no genocide at all. It is very good that this has been stated clearly." Later, apprised of Crowley's statement, Youssef said: "Scott Gration gave his opinion after he visited Darfur and made several contacts and acquainted himself with the situation there. That means that he knows better than the State Department spokesman."
The Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of more than 180 religious, advocacy and human rights organizations, is far more bothered by the lack of a clear-cut U.S. policy than by the back-and-forth about genocide.
During the campaign, Rice was a principal foreign policy adviser to Obama and advocated a stern U.S. policy against al-Bashir's activities in Darfur. Obama had said Darfur would be a priority for his government, but he has been busy with the global economic downturn and a pile of other domestic and foreign issues.
The review of Darfur policy is said to be on the verge of completion. The coalition's Meixner said he hopes the policy will be laid out within a month or so.
"The real questions are whether the Darfuri people are in crisis and whether lives are hanging in the balance. The answer to each of those questions is an unequivocal 'yes,'" Jerry Fowler, the coalition president said in a statement. "It is past time for the administration to speak with one voice on Sudan and unveil its plan to help bring peace and security to the country."
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Khartoum, Sudan.