Omar Youssef, a Polisario sector commander, defiantly pointed out the Moroccan base at Zaag from atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the sedolate Saharan countryside. Zaag, the last position still controlled by the Moroccan Army is southeastern Morocco, is completely surrounded by Algerian-based Polisario guerrillas and is supplied only by air.
"King Hassan sent his troops to occupy the Western Sahara," quipped the turbaned Youssef, "so we in turn have brought the war into Moroccan territory and will strike even more boldly in the future."
During a week-long, 1,000-kilometer tour with Polisario guerrilla units in both southern Morocco and the Western Sahara a few months ago, I saw sample evidence to attest to the intensity of this bitter desert war. The conflict was touched off in 1975 after Morocco's "Green March" into the then Spanish Sahara.
After an initial defensive period, during which it organized refugee camps in southern Algeria for about 130,000 Sahrawi civilians, Polisario has taken to the offensive over the past year. After the separate peace treaty with Mauritania last August, the Sahrawi liberation movement has been able to concentrate all its efforts against the Moroccan armed forces.
The extent of recent Moroccan military setbacks became evident after a morning visit to the garrison town of Lebouirate. Sweeping out of the desert at dawn in small, speedy Land-Rover trucks, the Polisario guerrillas rapidly caved in the Moroccan defenses and engulfed the town.
I noted more than 40 destroyed Moroccan tanks and dozens of other vehicles in and around the town. King Hassan claims to have reoccupied Lebouirate, but the only reminder of the Moroccan presence at that time was a stray dog.
The morale of Moroccan troops, mostly conscripts from the slum-ridden cities in the north and poor peasants, was not high. My guide and translator, Bechir, showed me the logbook kept by Muhammad Azelmat, a Moroccan commander, in which he wrote that, "traumatized and demoralized, the soldiers of the 3d Armored Brigade are no longer operational, and a catastrophe of no uncertain proportions is likely to occur if the enemy decides to attack again."
Later that day, I visited the nearby battlefield of Wadi Techitt, where a powerful Moroccan relief column, heading from Zaag to Lemsayed, was decimated last September. The Moroccans panicked and broke ranks, attempting to flee toward their bases. The fast-moving guerrillas pursued them, picking off isolated groups of vehicles one after another.
Hundreds of decomposing vehicles -- including United States-supplied heavy-duty GMC trucks -- were strewn across the rocky plain. The hardened footsteps of fleeing Moroccan soldiers were still visible in the mud of the half-dry riverbed. The bodies of several dozen Moroccans littered the area.
Polisario fighters were delighted to forage in the Moroccan vehicles for batteries, headlights, and other scarce spare parts. Although most of the guerrillas' heavy armament is Soviet-made, they also make extensive use of Western arms captured from Moroccan forces.
All the four-wheel-drive Land-Rovers in which I rode had Moroccan markings; the same was true for the Polisario supply trucks in the battle zones. Back at Polisario base camps in Algeria, hundreds of captured trucks, jeeps, Land-Rovers , and armored cars are displayed for the visiting journalist. My guide was most proud of the five ultramodern, French-Austrian SK-105 tanks seized intact.
The number of captured machine guns, mortars, artillery pieces, and antiaircraft guns taken from the Moroccans is also impressive. Many of the Moroccan prisoners of war with whom I was able to speak freely made no secret of the fact that they simply abandoned their arms when the Polisario force attacked.
"The Army feels hamstrung in the Saharan war," said Lt. Abdisalem Boukili, captured during the battle of Bir Enziran in August, "because no major move can be made without approval from the King's military advisers in Rabat. Hassan still fears a repetition of the attempted Army coups in 1971 and 1972."
Polisario has coupled traditional hit-and-run attacks, used for centuries by its nomad ancestors, with lightning assaults on fixed Moroccan positions by several thousand troops. Faced with a highly mobile and elusive enemy, the Moroccans have become bogged down in a desert war that they seem poorly prepared to fight.
The Moroccan high command has deployed new tactics to counter Polisario successes, but the results have been meager. Col. Ahmed Dlimi, the King's top military adviser, led a column of 6,000 men and 1,500 vehicles in a sweep across southern Morocco and the Western Sahara last December. Polisario fighters were able to avoid much direct contact with this large search-and-destroyed mission.
The Moroccans are also counting on reinforced air power to curtail Polisario movements. But "Moroccan pilots rarely fly lower than 7,500 feet, in order to avoid Polisario's SAM missiles," a captured fighter pilot, Ali Nahab, said. (SAM missiles are light, Soviet-type ground-to-air rockets.)
"The Moroccan Air Force is frankly not effective, and I do not think that the introduction of French-built Mirage F-1 fighters will radically alter the present situation," he added. The Moroccans have admitted losing three of these
Moving southward into the Western Sahara, or what my guides call the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (now recognized by 35 states), I visited the garrison town of Jdiria, evacuated by the Moroccans last summer.
"The Moroccans withdrawal had great sumbolic value for us," one guerrilla commented, "for Jdiria was the first Saharan town they occupied in 1975."
Dynamited by the Moroccans, Jdiria was a shambles. A ghost-town atmosphere floated over the rubble. In one half-destroyed barracks I was able to make out a pathetic inscription scrawled on the wall in French by a distressed Moroccan soldier: "My dear daughter, Fatiha, I know you are waiting to see me again one day. Your unlucky father."
The war is now far from Jridia, but its grim remnants linger: a graveyard containing 32 headstones of Moroccan soldiers and the rusting hulks of military vehicles scattered around the town. The same disquieting scene was repeated in the other Saharan towns -- Farsia, Haousa, Amgala, and Tifariti -- which I visited.