- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2008

DAKAR, Senegal | Mauritania’s new military rulers are expected to take a harder line on both al Qaeda militants and more moderate Islamist politicians than their civilian predecessors who were ousted in a coup this week, analysts say.

The army had been unhappy with the softer stance taken by the African nation’s first freely elected president, who was deposed Wednesday.

By hunting down militants in a country hit by several Islamist attacks in the past year, the analysts say, the junta could also try to ease global criticism of the takeover, particularly from the United States. Washington already has cut military aid in protest.

“The military’s most recent coup … may strengthen the government’s response to Mauritania’s fledgling Islamist terrorist organizations,” said Geoff Porter, an analyst at the Eurasia Group.

Despite promises of elections and respect for democracy, analysts say coup leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is also likely to marginalize Islamist moderates who won positions in the weak government of the overthrown president.

Having been barred for years, Islamists were allowed to set up a political party last year after Mauritania, which sits in both black and Arab Africa, elected its first democratic leader in President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

But some criticized the lifting of the Islamist ban, especially when al Qaeda militants later killed several French tourists last December and clashed with the Mauritanian security services in early 2008.

The attacks, which led to the cancellation of the famous Dakar motor rally, strengthened fears that al Qaeda’s north African wing could spread to the already fragile states of west Africa.

The raids soured relations between the army and Mr. Abdallahi.

“The military embraced an ‘eradicationist’ approach similar to that prevalent among the Algerian military, whereas Abdallahi preferred a more institutional approach - arresting terrorists, trying them in court and releasing them if charges would not stick,” Mr. Porter said.

Mr. Abdallahi’s election last year was widely welcomed by the international community as a step toward democracy, and the United States saw the new president as a possible partner in the fight against terrorism.

Washington also would like to see Mauritania’s longstanding ties with Israel continue. It is one of few Arab states to have them.

A democratic Mauritania was quickly incorporated into the Pentagon’s $500 million Sahara counterterrorism operations that also run in Mali, Niger and Chad.

Washington, however, immediately condemned this week’s coup and Thursday suspended aid to Mauritania, including more than $15 million in military aid and anti-terrorism funds.

Mauritania’s new leaders will not be surprised by this cut in aid, said an analyst. But they will, in private, stress their commitment to fighting terror and use fear of regional insecurity to curry some favor.

“They will say that they represent stability and there should not be any fears about insecurity,” said Alain Antil, the head of the Sub-Saharan Africa program at the French Institute for International Relations.

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