TINDOUF, ALGERIA — Morocco's interest in controlling the inhospitable and sand-blasted Western Sahara boils down to greed for power, says Mohammed Abdel Aziz, head of the Polisario Front that has fought Moroccan occupation since the mid-1970s.
Sure, there are some of the world's richest phosphate deposits, and barely tapped offshore fishing grounds, he said in a rare interview. But relative to Morocco's own natural wealth, the Western Sahara adds nothing to King Hassan II's reign except the dubious grip on an unruly colony - and a bigger space for Morocco on world maps.
"They have their own sea and coast on the Atlantic and Mediterranean; they have their own Sahara, big mountains, and a huge green land that is still not exploited," he says.
"They have all these things in Morocco, so the [Moroccan] settlers presence in Western Sahara has been imposed by a dictatorial regime. It is a political presence," he says.
The 120,000 Moroccan soldiers that control two-thirds of the former Spanish territory, he says, have enabled Morocco to establish a presence with tens of thousands of settlers, similar to the Israeli policy of building on occupied Arab land in the West Bank and Golan.
"Yes, the policy is the same," says Mr. Abdel Aziz, who is also president of the self-declared Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. "The Moroccans are playing for time, to build up land that they control.... But we believe that Morocco will benefit more from a just peace than continuing this war, especially now that the world order has changed."
This is where James Baker, UN troubleshooter on the conflict, comes in. Abdel Aziz and the Polisario leadership note that Mr. Baker, as secretary of state for President George Bush, was tough on Israel's settlement policies, calling them obstacles to peace. He helped persuade all sides to begin the Arab-Israeli peace process.
"Mr. Baker is a very capable and brave man," says Abdel Aziz. "He said clearly during his time with Mr. Bush that the US will respect international law and defend it." And if Baker fails in his mission? "I don't think he will," says Abdel Aziz. "If James Baker fails, of course there will be a political vacuum, and there is nothing that could fill that vacuum but war."