- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

The United Nations took another step forward this week in resolving the conflict between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front — a conflict that dates back to 1975 and was, until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991, a bloody guerrilla war. While extending the mandate for its peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, the Security Council called Monday for direct talks between the two sides — a move that hasn’t happened in a decade. The plan has a sense of urgency, calling on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report on the progress of negotiations before the Security Council in two months.

Morocco’s initiative, presented to the United Nations in April, established a framework for preserving Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara while granting the region significant autonomy. The initiative, a starting point for negotiations, has been applauded and supported by the Bush administration and a group of 171 members of Congress — a bipartisan group that includes members from the leadership and numerous committee chairs — who sent a letter to President Bush hailing the initiative as a “breakthrough opportunity” that “provides a realistic framework for a negotiated political solution.”

The Moroccan government also applauded the U.N.’s call for negotiations. “The most reasonable path to resolution in the Western Sahara is through direct negotiations between the parties, and… the Security Council has affirmed that direction,” said Morocco’s ambassador to the United States, Aziz Mekouar. “The Kingdom of Morocco stands ready to engage in serious, direct and good faith negotiations.”

Also, the Polisario, which represents the Sahrawi tribe, has agreed to talk directly, but hasn’t reciprocated Morocco’s willingness to move away from its default, all-or-nothing push for independence.

For North Africa’s Maghreb region the stakes are high. It has the resources, educated population base and strong ties to Europe and the United States needed to develop economically, but it can prosper only as a whole. The standing conflict over the Western Sahara prevents that unity. Both Europe and the United States have a vested interest in ending that economic stagnation before the region becomes both safe harbor and fertile recruiting ground for burgeoning terrorist groups, one of which now calls itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The administration’s efforts — and congressional support — have been laudable, and the first steps toward a resolution have been taken. The Polisario now needs to be convinced that the interest of the Sahrawi people is served by negotiating an autonomy agreement, and Algeria needs to understand that its role in the Maghreb should be cooperative, not hegemonic. With continued effort, coupled with international pressure on the Polisario and its backers in Algeria, this conflict can be resolved, opening the way for the development of the entire Maghreb.

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