- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

For 404 Moroccan POWs, the nightmare is over. It ended Thursday when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar finalized negotiations between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front to release all remaining prisoners, some of whom have been held for two decades. The 404 represent the last of the approximately 2,000 Moroccan soldiers captured by the Polisario during the bloody 1976-91 war over control of Western Sahara. “Today, in a world where there is all too much suffering and violence, the values of cooperation and compassion have scored a victory,” said Mr. Lugar, who deserves much of the credit for helping to end the crisis.

Congratulations must also go to Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam POW who, in May, joined with six recently released Moroccan POWs on Capitol Hill to call on Polisario Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz to release all remaining prisoners. From that moment, say those close to events, international pressure mounted swiftly.

While the end seemed to come suddenly, with President Bush dispatching Mr. Lugar in the 11th hour of negotiations, the United States had been closely watching the humanitarian crisis since the spring. Indeed, U.S. efforts to help Morocco and the Polisario reach a political compromise extend even farther. And while releasing the prisoners was a combined international effort, U.S. pressure provided the critical boost. This shouldn’t lessen the contribution of others, especially the United Nations, which called repeatedly for the prisoners’ release. It does go to show, however, the power only the United States can wield when fully committed, particularly when it’s a multipronged effort. As one administration official described it: “While the State Department led the diplomatic effort, the Pentagon helped with logistics and the National Security Council was intricately involved with Sen. Lugar’s presidential mission.”

With exceptions, the American media continues to ignore this amazing diplomatic and humanitarian success. At an especially fragile period in American-Muslim relations, the United States successfully mediated a dispute between several Muslim governments. In fact, said one State Department spokesman, “the Moroccans and the Algerians asked for U.S. assistance.” With the hostage crisis behind them, Morocco and the Polisario can now get to the business of solving their territorial dispute over Western Sahara. The United States should press for a peaceful resolution, but the heavy lifting should be the duty of the United Nations. But for now, it’s gratifying to know that there are 404 husbands, brothers and sons breathing the free air once more.

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