Tuesday, February 7, 2006

RABAT, Morocco

It is an arid, sparsely populated part of the world on the Atlantic coast of North Africa. For decades, the Western Sahara has been caught in a tug of war between Morocco and Algeria.

Morocco seized the territory in 1975 after it gained independence from Spain and refuses to give up control. Algeria, which shelters the separatist movement known as the Polisario Front, insists the Western Saharans should have their say in the matter.

After decades of squabbling, war and failed negotiations, Morocco says it will submit a proposal to the United Nations in April that would grant autonomy to the people of Western Sahara.

“We are ready to take this risk as a compromise,” said Taib Fassi Fihri, Morocco’s minister delegate for foreign affairs and cooperation. “We are ready to go as far as we can to negotiate. When everybody agrees, we can grant autonomy in good faith.”

Under this plan, the Sahrawis, as the area’s people are called, would run their own affairs while remaining under Moroccan sovereignty.

Government spokesman Nabil Benabdallah said the terms of the proposal will be defined during negotiations, but indicated they would involve “total devolution of authority on people over everyday affairs.”

This does not mean self-government, he said.

“Morocco will still be in charge of issues such as defense and foreign affairs.” If the plan is accepted, Morocco will become the first country in the Arab world to give autonomy to one of its territories. Observers familiar with the 30-year dispute see the plan as something new.

Robert Holley, executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization created to enhance Morocco-U.S. relations, said the initiative sets a precedent for a diverse nation that has opposed separatism.

Shadow of terrorism

“For a thousand years, Morocco has tried to make diversity work against the tendency for diversity to spin off into something else,” said Mr. Holley. “For Morocco to say they’re willing to accept autonomy is a politically courageous thing because of the risks attached.”

Moroccan officials, however, say the risks of not reaching a compromise could be worse. They warn that if a political solution is not found, the Sahel — the belt of countries between North Africa and states south of the Sahara, where borders are less controlled, could become a breeding ground for terrorism.

“There are a lot of young people in the Sahel who are leaning towards radical Islam, with groups such as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat gaining ground,” said Hamid Chabar, the Moroccan representative of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, created in 1991.

Khalid Zerouali, director of migration and border surveillance in the Moroccan Interior Ministry, calls the Sahel a “no man’s land controlled by terrorists and mafia groups.” He said the presence of the Polisario Front makes it even more dangerous.

“The Polisario is made up of 10,000 idle soldiers. Half of them went to Cuba to learn sabotage techniques that can be used by terror groups,” Mr. Zerouali said.

The Polisario’s representative at the United Nations in New York denies his organization is linked to Islamic terrorist groups. Ahmed Boukhari told United Press International that the Polisario is “a clean movement that does not support terrorism.”

Referendum elusive

The Polisario Front was formed in 1973 to fight Spain’s protectorate over the Western Sahara, a region rich in phosphates, Atlantic fisheries and perhaps offshore oil. After Morocco annexed much of the territory in 1976, the Polisario, which had proclaimed the region independent, began attacks with Algeria’s backing and shifted its base to Tindouf in western Algeria.

Boosted by the growing population of Sahrawi refugees in its camps, as well as by Algerian arms and money, the Polisario waged a hit-and-run war with Morocco. Fighting stopped Sept. 6, 1991, when the U.N. mission brokered a cease-fire on the promise of a referendum on independence.

Disagreements over who could vote stalled the referendum, which never took place, despite efforts by James A. Baker III starting in 1997. The American diplomat worked out two settlement plans, but neither won the support of all parties. He resigned in 2004 after Morocco rejected the second proposal, which called for a referendum after five years of autonomy.

“Morocco was prepared to use Baker’s first settlement plan as a basis for negotiations, but the Polisario refused to accept anything but a referendum,” recalled a Western analyst close to Moroccan authorities who asked not to be identified.

“Nobody wanted to push Algeria too hard because they thought the country, which was deep in civil war at the time, was too fragile, and [the United States] did not have a big foreign policy agenda. So the whole thing went flat.”

Pressure for solution

Recent events have renewed pressure on Morocco to develop a solution. Since May, protests demanding independence have erupted in Western Sahara towns. At the same time, the Polisario has threatened to resume attacks against Morocco unless a referendum is held.

The Western analyst who spoke on background said Washington has asked Morocco to present a proposal that would encourage negotiations before the dispute escalates.

“We need to put something on the table before something happens out there in the Sahel and blows up in our face,” he said. “The U.S. doesn’t have the forces necessary to handle a conflict in the Sahel. … I think what’s happening in Morocco is more important to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East than people realize.”

The Polisario Front already has rejected Morocco’s autonomy proposal. In a letter last week to U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, the U.N. Security Council president for February, Mr. Boukhari said only a referendum on independence “offers real possibilities for a just and lasting resolution of the conflict of Western Sahara.”

Moroccan authorities are urging other parties, especially the United States, to support the autonomy proposal when they present it to the U.N. Security Council in April. They say only international pressure can persuade Algeria to take the next step in resolving the Sahara dispute.

“We have offered something that helps Algeria save face,” said Mr. Fassi Fihri, the Moroccan minister delegate for foreign affairs. “But now, Algeria also has to compromise.”

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