- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Wednesday, the Moroccan government presented the United Nations with a framework for autonomy for the Western Sahara region, taking the first step, which the United Nations has called for repeatedly, toward a political dialogue with its longtime adversary, the Polisario Front. The plan is a starting point, but it immediately won plaudits from Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who called it “a serious and credible proposal.”

The bloody conflict between the Moroccan government and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which represents the Sahwari tribe, dates back more than three decades. From 1975 until a U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement in 1991, Moroccan forces were engaged in a guerrilla war with the Polisario. Since then, the two sides have been locked in a protracted political struggle over the territory known as the Western Sahara, where the Sahrawi claim sovereignty.

The terms of the 1991 cease-fire agreement were not fully met until August 2005, when the Polisario, under pressure from the international community — particularly the United Nations and the United States — finally released the last 404 Moroccan prisoners of war. The heinous conditions the POWs faced, including barbaric torture and forced labor, was a human face on the political struggle, and revealed the true nature of the Polisario Front, which had long portrayed itself as victim.

Allowing the Sahrawi people to vote on a referendum seems like a simple enough solution, but the Polisario’s insistence on restricting the voter lists locked that process into more than six years of effectively fruitless discussion. Recognizing this deadlock, the United Nations shifted its approach to encouraging direct negotiations between the Moroccan government and the Polisario. If the two sides come together and negotiate a mutually acceptable solution, the thinking goes, the issue of who was allowed to vote wouldn’t be so contentious.

The Moroccan initiative is the first, and to date the only, proposed framework for a political solution to come from either side, and from it the two sides can craft a final agreement. It preserves Moroccan sovereignty, but gives the Western Sahara sufficient autonomy to become effectively self-governing. The autonomous region would, for instance, have a local legislature that would, in turn, elect an executive, who would be invested by the king.

Resolving this issue is also necessary for the entire Maghreb region to move forward economically. The region will prosper collectively, but that kind of integration isn’t possible until this political issue has been resolved. Inasmuch as poverty and dire economic circumstances fuel the recruitment of terrorists, two incidents this week — one an attack in Algiers claimed by a group that now calls itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the other a standoff in Casablanca that ended after three suicide bombers blew themselves up and a fourth was killed by police — testify to the importance of helping the region.

The Polisario now needs to reciprocate the Moroccan government’s move to the negotiating table. Getting it to do so may be challenging, however. The Polisario continues to demand a referendum and threaten renewed violence. International pressure was crucial to bringing about a successful, albeit much belated, resolution of the Moroccan POW situation, and it will be important again in compelling the Polisario to come to the table and discuss a political solution for the Western Sahara. A firm line is required. The United States can make clear to the Polisario that if it cares for the Sahrawi people, it needs to begin serious negotiations.