The U.S. Congress continued its focus on Sudan on Thursday, with the U.S. envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Major General Jonathan Scott Gration, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Lawmakers expressed concern about Darfur and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended years of conflict between the North and the South, while Gration said the United States is committed to achieving peace in Sudan.

Gration said the Obama administration is pursuing a multi-track approach to ensure full implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, and an inclusive and durable peace that provides security and stability in Darfur.

Sudan is scheduled to hold elections under the CPA in 2010, followed in 2011 by a referendum in the south.  But the Obama administration and members of Congress are concerned that the agreement could unravel.

Holding to that schedule is crucial, said Gration, to establish a strong basis for the referendum in the south, and long-term security and development.

"If we can push through the administrative processes of ballots and security, and getting people to the polling stations - if we can do all that - that gives us a jump on making sure that the referenda in Abyei and southern Sudan have a chance of being free, fair and credible," he said.  

Abyei is an oil-rich region in the south where tensions have been high over petroleum rights and territorial claims.   

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Democrat John Kerry said that while the U.S. works for a solution to violence in western Sudan, the clock is ticking for the overall Sudan peace agreement.

"If the people of Sudan are to transform a ceasefire and an uneasy power-sharing agreement into lasting peace, we need to think of the CPA as the ongoing process stretching into the future not as an event in the past," Kerry said.

Kerry noted that crucial elements of the CPA - border demarcation, citizenship and revenue sharing - remain unresolved.

Lawmakers voiced concern about a potential vote by the south to secede from Sudan.

Republican Senator, Richard Lugar:

"With the referendum on independence of the South due in 2011, most indicators are that voters will choose to separate.  Unless some formula for stability can be constructed, the tensions between North and South will be highly volatile and could inflame the entire region," he said.

On the violence in Darfur, Gration said "there is a significant difference" compared to several years ago when it was characterized as genocide.  Asserting he is not saying that genocide has ended, the U.S. envoy said ending the suffering of people living in dire and desperate conditions is what matters most.
Earl Gast, Acting Assistant Administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development, called the refugee situation "intolerable" and said the Sudan government's expulsion last year of 13 humanitarian agencies continues to have negative repercussions.

"Car-jackings, staff abductions and assaults, break-ins targeting NGO [non-governmental organization] facilities and ongoing military campaigns still impede the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Darfur," he said.

Democratic Senator Russ Feingold asked whether the Obama administration moved too soon to pursue an engagement strategy with the Khartoum government, which has been the major stumbling block to the deployment of a full U.N. peacekeeping force.

"Can you assure this Committee that the administration is actively assessing the viability of meaningful punitive actions and preparing them in the event that the government of Sudan continues its historic foot-dragging?" He asked.

Saying that President Barack Obama gave him a mandate to save lives in Sudan, Special Envoy Scott Gration told lawmakers it was necessary to create a better relationship with Khartoum to address a range of problems.

"It became very clear that at some point, we had to have a relationship so we could discuss options.  And that is what we did early.  But that doesn't preclude or negate anything that the strategy is trying to do," said Gration.

Two senators, Republicans Bob Corker and Johnny Isakson, asserted that the assistance Sudan has provided to counter-terrorism efforts supports calls to remove that country from the U.S list of nations designated as state sponsors of terrorism.

"The fact is that there is no evidence today, despite the atrocities that we are all aware of, there is no evidence that Sudan is involved as a state sponsor of terror.  None," said Corker.

Gration called U.S. sanctions against Sudan "a political decision" that hampers humanitarian and development efforts throughout the country.

In his testimony Thursday, Scott Gration said the United States is involved in intensive diplomatic efforts on Sudan, including activities of the "troika" - the U.S, Britain and Norway - and talks with Russia and China.

He said China, which critics say has failed to exert pressure on Khartoum over Darfur, is now "working with us" and coordinating with the United States where international humanitarian assistance is concerned.