Morocco; A long war in an ageless desert

Peace may be on the way in the Sahara, and the United States role in support of Morocco may be an important factor in achieving a solution to the conflict. This, at any rate, is the conclusion of European analysts here who have speculated recently that the prolonged desert conflict with the Algerian-based Polisario Front guerrillas will be resolved by an agreement between Morocco and Algeria.

If so, the US decision to resupply Morocco with arms, and thus reduce the imbalance in military power between the two countries, is seen as exerting a moderating influence on an explosive situation in the Sahara that continues to threaten Africa's political equilibrium.

"The Saharan affair, which seemed to be dangerously deteriorating six months ago, is certainly not resolved, but seems to be at least defused," says the diplomatic weekly I'Echo de I'Afrique. "It does not appear that it will result in a fratricidal confrontation between Algeria and Morocco."

Algeria, according to the weekly, has been quietly indicating that it does not wish to push the conflict to all-out war, even though it harbors Polisario camps within its borders.

While Morocco's King Hassan has striven to soften the anti-Algerian outcry in Moroccan government circles, Algerian President Chadli Benjedid has reportedly warned the Polisario Front that the guerrillas are on their own in any large undertaking against the Moroccans.

Reports reaching here also state that the Algerian diplomatic mission seemed highly embarrased by the pro-Polisario voting at the recent Organization of African Unity meeting in Monrovia, Liberia. This might explain the backtracking noted in the meeting's recommendations, which referred only to Moroccan withrawal from Rio de Oro, the lower third of Western Sahara.

Moroccan officials affirm that secret Algerian-Moroccan contacts took place during 1978 and were so far along that a summit meeting in Belgium was foreseen. Algeria does not deny that such contacts took place before the death of President Houari Boumedienne over a year ago. And it is believed here that a secret dialogue between King Hassan and President Chadli may continue today.

Meanwhile, Moroccan military power is being brought closer in line with the superior Algerian force by the resupply of US parts and military hardware. President Carter's proposed sale of 8 F-5E fighter planes would help balance Algeria's armada of 260 combat aircraft, which includes sophisticated Soviet-built bombers, as well as a growing fleet of MIG-23 and MIG-25 fighters.

Moroccan deployment of a large mobile force throughout the desert area is also seen as a stabilizing factor in the conflict.

While Algeria attempts to thrash out its severe economic and social problems at home, the Algerian President is said to have privately denounced the Saharan conflict as a waste of time.

Indeed, as seen from here, the average Algerian has no interest Western Sahara. Since the Polisario has failed in its attempts to take the towns of Dakhla and Smara, so as to establish a capital in the Sahara, Algeria continues to play the reluctant host and may soon be seeking an out, according to the Moroccans.

Some Europeans understand Morocco's comparison of the Western Sahara "provinces" to France's Alsace-Lorraine and the Spanish Basque region -- namely as unviable territories unsuited to independence.

A French Deputy, Gabriel Perronnet, said recently after visiting Morocco: "This is unquestionably an armed rebellion. The Moroccans could not simply let it go." Only a political solution can end the struggle, he stated.

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