For decades, Save the Children has been feeding, immunizing and patching up young victims of Africa's longest running conflict--the civil war in Sudan. Now, however, the Connecticut-based aid organization has expanded into unprecedented political activism at home.

Save the Children has joined most of the private and religion-based aid agencies that operate a $1 million-a-day relief program in Sudan in beginning to criticize Clinton administration policy as one-sided in its hostility toward the Khartoum government and insufficiently committed to promoting a just peace.

"It's not really our role in life," said Charles F. MacCormack, Save the Children's president. "But when hundreds of thousands die year in and year out because of politics, we are forced to become involved."

The centerpiece of U.S. policy has long been to isolate Sudan's National Islamic Front government, headed by President Omar Hassan Bashir. Washington accuses Bashir's administration of supporting terrorism, bombing civilian targets, suppressing religious freedom and abusing human rights--including by backing enslavement of women and children in southern Sudan so they can be sold in the north. At the same time, Washington has maintained a public dialogue with, and given some aid to rebels led by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which also has been accused of serious human rights abuses.

The aid groups argue that Washington's focus on combating terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism has blinded it to possible openings to Khartoum, as well as to the manifest faults of the SPLA. They say the U.S. view has led to decisions like the August 1998 bombing of a Khartoum pharmaceutical plant on what is now widely questioned evidence that it was involved in chemical weapons manufacture. And it has given outsize influence to those who see the long ethnic and territorial war in Sudan, Africa's largest country in area, as primarily a religious battle between the Islamic north and the Christian south.

In a September meeting they requested with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the aid groups--including Save the Children, CARE, Oxfam America, World Vision, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Lutheran World Relief, among others--called on the administration to make peace its primary objective in Sudan, to support development efforts in the north as well as the south and for Clinton to become personally engaged and "to announce a new policy."

To the administration, the aid organizations are at best naive and misguided, and at worst are undermining its policy toward a Sudanese government that it says deserves to be an international pariah.

The attempts the administration has made to engage Sudan, said one senior administration official, have made little headway because the Sudanese government "isn't interested in doing squat" to reach a just peace agreement.

There is little dispute that there are no good guys in the Sudan war. Since the current round of warfare began 16 years ago, at least 2 million Sudanese have died and 4 million have become homeless as a result of battles between the government and a disparate group of rebels based in the south where most of the country's large minority of animists and Christians live.

Although the United States maintains formal relations with Sudan, it moved its diplomatic presence from Khartoum to Nairobi, Kenya, several years ago, and no U.S. official has visited the Sudanese capital since the 1998 bombing. But a number of U.S. allies who had been similarly estranged from Khartoum now tend to agree with the aid groups that the isolation has made no progress and the time has come to try more direct engagement.

In November, Britain restored its ambassador following a rift that began with the 1998 bombing. The Sudanese foreign minister visited France and Germany, and a delegation from the European Union traveled to Khartoum to open a political dialogue that it broke off in 1996, when two U.N. resolutions limited international cooperation with Sudan.

Canada has responded testily to U.S. suggestions that it stop the participation of a Canadian firm, Talisman Energy Inc., in a Sudanese oil development program. The United States has had sanctions in place against Sudan since 1997, but Canadian foreign policy generally steers clear of unilateral sanctions.

Even Egypt, estranged from Sudan since it alleged Sudanese support for a 1995 plot to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak, has warmed. The two governments reestablished full diplomatic relations when Bashir visited Cairo last month.

Rejecting direct involvement in any peace process, Washington has stepped up financial and diplomatic support for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional African group engaged in a desultory peace effort since 1993. Clinton appointed former Democratic congressman Harry Johnston of Florida as U.S. envoy to help with the process and humanitarian aid.

Critics applaud these measures, but consider IGAD too weak to bring the disparate combatants to heel.

They note that its members--Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Kenya--are less than nonpartisan brokers for peace in the region and disagree about what its outcome should be.

"When the U.S. shows real leadership, everyone else is much more likely to get on board," said MacCormack.

Critics maintain that the administration has ignored promising signs from Khartoum that, while small, are worth exploring--including a recent peace accord with Uganda negotiated by former president Jimmy Carter and a separate accord with one member of the opposition coalition.

The disagreement between the administration and the aid organizations--as well as policy divisions within the administration itself--came to an acrimonious head at the end of November, when Clinton signed a congressionally authored measure permitting the administration to send food aid directly to SPLA rebels.

The White House says it has not yet decided whether to go ahead with the aid, but must report a decision to Congress by Feb. 1.

The aid organizations, which along with the United Nations deliver virtually all assistance to all sides in Sudan--including more than $1 billion from the United States over the past decade--rose in protest. Not only would delivery of aid to combatants violate the basic precept of humanitarian assistance, they argued, it would put aid workers in even more danger than they already are.

In a Dec. 13 letter to Albright, Human Rights Watch, whose denunciations of the Sudanese government have been cited in U.S. government reports on rights abuses, called the proposal "wholly inappropriate and wholly out of step with the values that you have tried to inject into U.S. foreign policy."

While acknowledging disagreements, administration officials declined to talk on the record about the issue after news reports in recent weeks indicated a fierce battle between the assistant secretary of state for Africa, Susan Rice--considered the chief Sudan hard-liner by the aid groups and a strong supporter of the proposal to give aid to the rebels--and Julia V. Taft, the department's chief of humanitarian operations, who is against it.

The impetus for the aid proposal came from activists on Sudan issues, including Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), who have been particularly outspoken on the slavery issue.

The United Nations has confirmed and condemned slavery practiced by government-allied forces in Sudan, while noting it is a long tradition in Sudan. In its most recent report on human rights abuses in Sudan, Human Rights Watch noted that the Bashir government, which had long denied the reports, last May for the first time "acknowledged the problem of 'abduction and forced labor of women and children,' and set up a committee to address it."

While denouncing the slave trade, most aid organizations, including a number of Christian-based agencies, have said it has dominated discussions about how to end the Sudanese war.

They also have criticized the practice of "retrieving" slaves initiated by the Geneva-based Christian Solidarity International, which claims to have purchased more than 20,000 individuals from slave traders since 1995--the going rate is $50 apiece--as encouraging the slave trade.

CAPTION: Private groups provide aid to thousands of children in refugee camps in southern Sudan.