Washington: A peace agreement is in danger of unravelling because of inattention by top US officials and growing tensions between Sudan's government and the former rebels who signed the deal, according to experts and congressional officials.

The two-decade civil war, which pitted the Islamic government in the north against rebels based in the south, left two million people dead, primarily from famine and disease, and four million homeless. Christian evangelical groups had pressed hard for a resolution, and the administration made a peace agreement one of its top diplomatic priorities.

Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited the peace deal when she was asked what Bush would be remembered for besides Iraq. "He should be known for having contributed vitally to stopping the civil war between southern and northern Sudan," Rice said.

But now experts warn that the Khartoum government's unwillingness to abide by terms of the agreement could lead to a new outbreak of war.

Another conflict

"The CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) is eroding," said Roger Winter, a former State Department official who was involved in the negotiations. "It is not dead by any means, but it is eroding and Khartoum wants it to erode." He said he sees signs that the Sudanese government is no longer interested in the peace deal and has taken steps to prepare for another conflict.

Many experts said the administration, distracted by war in the Middle East and an unrelated conflict in Darfur region, has failed to recognise the peril lurking in the south. (Similarly, many now believe the administration let the Darfur conflict spiral out of control in 2003 because it was so focused on reaching a peace accord in the south.)

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a leading force in Congress on Sudan, said that "the bench over at the State Department is very shallow now"- virtually all the experts on Sudan have left in the past year - and the administration is "preoccupied with other issues". Bush in September appointed a special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, but Natsios has mainly been focused on Darfur, where as many as 450,000 people have died in what the administration labels a campaign of genocide by the Sudanese government.

"They have Natsios dealing with Darfur, but they have no one dealing with the south," said Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., chairman of the Africa subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said the administration should appoint a special envoy specifically to make sure the north-south peace deal does not collapse.