- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2007

NEW YORK — A weekend meeting here between the Moroccan government and a delegation from the Polisario Front is seen as progress on the future of Western Sahara, even though the two-day talks are expected to achieve little.

Delegates from both parties, as well as neighbors Mauritania and Algeria, are meeting in seclusion with U.N. officials at a Long Island resort today and tomorrow.

“We are talking, that is itself a kind of progress,” said Khalihenna Ould Errachid, president of the Moroccan Council on Saharan Affairs.

“But the argument of the Polisario is duplicitous and … they have no experience of compromise.”

The Polisario representative to the United Nations, Ahmad Boukhari, was even more pessimistic.

“Because of Morocco’s refusal to our proposal, the hopes [for progress] are reduced to almost zero,” he said yesterday.

One thing they do agree on: U.N. envoy Peter van Walsum’s April assessment of their demands as “mutually exclusive and unreconcilable.”

This is the second round of talks on the future of Western Sahara, a territory on the Atlantic Ocean that is bordered by Morocco to the north and Mauritania on the south and east. It is roughly the size of Britain, but has only 260,000 inhabitants, many of them nomads. The land isn’t much good for farming, but it sits atop sizable reserves of phosphates and, possibly, oil.

The area has been in dispute since the days of decolonization, when the French withdrew from what is now Morocco and the Spanish from south.

The Moroccan government, which claims the territory, has offered the Sahrawi people an autonomous region within the country. But the Sahrawi government in exile is seeking a referendum among the Sahrawi to decide on independence from or alignment within Morocco.

The government in exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, is recognized as a diplomatic observer within U.N. organizations and by about 25 states, including South Africa.

When the African Union accepted it as a full member, Morocco resigned.

“The object of these talks is self-determination for the Sahrawi,” Mr. Boukhari told The Washington Times yesterday. “That is the starting point.”

But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs C. David Welch recently described the Moroccan offer of autonomy as “serious and credible,” a statement that outraged some in the United Nations and Polisario supporters.

It also did not sit well with two dozen members of Congress, who on Tuesday sent a letter to President Bush urging him to “take steps to ensure that your administration demonstrates respect for the right of the Sahrawi people to democratically choose their own political and economic future.”