The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -President Barack Obama's special envoy to Sudan said Thursday that there is no evidence to back up the U.S. designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Scott Gration told lawmakers at a Senate hearing that the U.S. sanctions linked to that designation hinder his and others' work to rebuild the war-torn African country's infrastructure and to help people suffering in camps.

"It's a political decision," Gration said of the terror designation.

Gration's comments underscored an ongoing debate in the Obama administration about how to deal with the government in Khartoum about Darfur, where up to 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million displaced, and how to keep a separate conflict between the country's north and south from re-igniting.

Gration recently irked Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when he said the situation in Darfur was no longer a "genocide" but reflected the "remnants of genocide."

He did not back away from those comments Thursday. "There's significant difference between what happened in 2004 and 2003, which we characterized as a genocide, and what is happening today."

The level of violence in Darfur, Gration said, is not coordinated and is not as bad as in some other areas of the country, though he added that it "must end." He called the disagreement with Rice an "honest debate" over a "definitional issue."

"Right now, we're focusing on saving lives," he said. "It really doesn't matter what we call it, in my view; what matters is that we have people living in dire, desperate conditions."

Sudan is pushing for stronger diplomatic ties with the United States, the lifting of sanctions and its removal from the U.S. list of states said to sponsor terrorism.

Gration says that the Khartoum government has been helpful in stopping the flow of weapons and in dealing with key members of the terror group al-Qaida.

Sanctions, Gration said, affect the ability of aid workers to ship in heavy equipment to build roads and other crucial material. "At some point, we're going to have to unwind some of these sanctions so we can do the very things we need to do," Gration said.

He agreed with the assessment of Sen. Bob Corker. D-Tenn., that "we're cutting our nose off to spite our face."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., disagreed, saying statements of Sudan's cooperation are "overstated."

The senators said they would discuss specific intelligence of Sudan's efforts on terrorism and the sanctions issue with Gration in a closed session.

The United States is trying to help Sudan fully apply the terms of a 2005 peace accord that ended a 22-year civil war between the northern and southern parts of the country.

Time is running out before the peace accord faces a crucial test with national elections in February and a referendum after that on self-determination for southern Sudan.

"Our timeline is so very short," Gration said. Though he said he hopes the votes could be a success, he also called the efforts "almost mission impossible."

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.