Morocco to press U.S. for support in Sahara
Country in land dispute with Algeria
RABAT, MOROCCO | A Saharan standoff may become a U.S. problem.
A nasty spat between Algeria and Morocco over the disputed region of Western Sahara has boiled over anew, as Morocco recalled its ambassador, angry protesters tore down an Algerian flag, and a Moroccan magazine called for land grabs.
When Morocco’s King Mohammed VI meets with President Obama during his U.S. visit next week, the monarch will be looking for U.S. support as Morocco feuds with rival Algeria. The neighbors are jockeying for position in a dispute that leaves little space for the cooperation against al Qaeda in North Africa that Washington and its allies want.
Morocco has long made gaining international recognition for its 1975 annexation of the former Spanish territory on Africa’s Atlantic coast a top diplomatic priority. With Algeria backing the independence movement, the two countries have been at loggerheads for decades.
Last month, Morocco temporarily recalled its ambassador — a major escalation that one former Algerian diplomat called an attempt to gain U.S. backing for its claim to Western Sahara.
“It was surprising and disproportionate,” Abdelaziz Rahabi told The Associated Press, arguing that the move was designed to dominate the scheduled visit of Secretary of State John F. Kerry this week that has since been postponed.
The U.S. priority increasingly has focused on fighting terrorism, with al Qaeda’s North Africa branch morphing into a Sahara-spanning group with a presence from the borders of Morocco to Libya.
With the two most powerful militaries in the region at each other’s throats, building any kind of regional cooperation — especially to support weaker states such as Niger, Mauritania and Chad — has been impossible.
Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for Western Sahara, but the Polisario Front, the pro-independence nationalist movement, insists that local people have the right to a referendum on the territory’s future as set out in a 1991 U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement that ended 15 years of fighting.
Algeria has backed the Polisario’s claims and provides the group with a haven.
It says it supports the principle of self- determination; Morocco says it is just a ploy for regional domination.
Morocco withdrew its ambassador Oct. 30 for four days of consultation after Algeria reiterated its stance that a U.N. observer mission in the region should include human rights monitoring.
Morocco has been under fire from human rights groups that say abuse is widespread, but it sees such a move as a threat to its sovereignty.
Part of the problem for Morocco is that Algeria and the Polisario Front have the force of international law on their side and so Morocco has to struggle harder to explain its position.
It also has to deal with the fact that the U.N. Security Council increasingly is considering the issue of human rights.