- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

DAKAR, Senegal — The United States has resumed dealings with Mauritania after a bloodless coup earlier this month ousted one of the main U.S. allies on the West African front of the global war on terror.

Washington initially stood beside the African Union in denouncing the coup, but has since opted to recognize the new government.

“The guys running the country right now are the guys we are dealing with, because they are the ones making the decisions,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

Former President Maaouiya Ould Taya was overthrown Aug. 3 by a 17-member military junta while out of the country. He had prevailed in three other coup attempts over the past two years.

The group of senior officers, many of whom were elemental in bringing Mr. Taya to power more than two decades ago, said his ruthless treatment of Islamist leaders and other political opposition threatened to destabilize the soon-to-be oil-rich nation of 3 million.

The new head of state, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, has pledged that democratic elections will be held within two years and that no military officers would be eligible to run.

Opposition groups have already met with the new government and 21 political prisoners were freed last week, giving hope to citizens that democracy may be on the horizon.

Mr. Taya, now exiled in Gambia, had been enlisted as a key partner in the newly upgraded seven-year, $500 million Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI).

In June, U.S. military personnel began training and border-control exercises with troops from Mauritania and eight other Saharan countries where vast and lawless swaths of desert are believed to be a potential haven for terrorists.

Mauritanian requests for a significant share of U.S. funding were given a boost when 15 soldiers were killed during a June 4 raid on a remote army outpost.

The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an Algeria-based terror group with links to al Qaeda, took responsibility for the attack. The GSPC also has been implicated in a spate of recent attacks in Algeria and the kidnapping of 32 European tourists two years ago.

But many analysts have long insisted that pariah regimes like Mr. Taya’s exploited U.S. fears to gain military handouts.

“For Mauritania, the Islamists have become a useful alibi to request support from the West,” said a recent report by the International Crisis Group, an influential Brussels-based think tank.

Jeremy Keenan, a British expert on the Sahara, believes Mauritania is not alone. He told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the timing of the Mauritanian border attack, which occurred the day after the first phase of the TSCTI began, was “too great a coincidence.”

Mr. Keenan called the GSPC a “pseudonym for the Algerian Security Services.”

Analysts have further argued that if the U.S. continues to be perceived as reinforcing authoritarian regimes, anti-terror efforts could backfire and prompt moderate Saharans to sympathize with Islamic radicals.

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