Talks -- not arms -- to stop the Saharan war

Congress may have to decide between America's best friends and its best interests when it considers the latest proposed arms agreement with Morocco or the possible sale of arms to Algeria.

The Reagan administration has proposed to seel the Moroccans 108 M60-A3 tanks and 12 recovery vehicles worth $189 million. Meanwhile, the State Department has agreed to consider a Lockheed Corporation request for needed US permission to promote sale of its C-130 planes in Algeria, a permission required under Carter administration rulings.

State Department sources say reports that the US is already considering selling Algeria aircraft on an arms package are premature. However, such action raises disturbing questions.

Algeria and Morocco are at loggerheads in the Western Sahara, where the Algeria- (and Libyan-) backed organization Polisario is fighting a war of attrition against Morocco's King Hassan for sovereignty over 100,000 square miles of desert. At issue are the desert's large deposits of high-quality phosphate, some of the world's richest fishing grounds, access to two oceans, and leadership of North Africa. Also at issue are the lives of at least 75,000 Saharans (Sahrawis) who, a United Nations visiting mission determined in 1975, are unwilling to accept Moroccan rule.

The US has tried to toe both sides of the line on the Saharan war issue, supporting Hassan with arms while voicing disapproval of his effort to win the war militarily. But the Algerians, with whom the US is developing major economic ties, may find it difficult to make the distinction between what the US says and what it does. The administration's notice that it plans to sell Morocco the tanks came right on the heels of Algeria's extensive efforts on our behalf to obtain release of the hostages by Iran. State Department sources say the timing of the announcement was "dictated by technical factors" relating to production-line schedules for the tanks. Nevertheless, the timing was insensitive and the Algerians, according to the State Department, have expressed "some concern and opposition."

Until last March, the US stalled delivery to Morocco of $441.5 million in arms agreements negotiated since 1975 because of concern about Hassan's escalating Saharan war. But in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, the Carter administration felt pressed to make a show of US commitment to traditional allies.

After heated debate, Congress authorized shipment of $235 million in Saudi-financed F-5 jets, MD helicopters (Morocco has since canceled this portion of the order), and six OV-10 slow-flying aircraft. The first of the OV-10s was to be delivered to Morocco in February, with the F-5s to follow in May.

The Carter administration expressed hopes that with more American arms Morocco could negotiate from a position of strength. Since then, however, King Hassan has not backed down on a single issue that the opposition makes a condition for peace talks. American diplomats feel the US has not pressed hard enough for these talks.

Hassan has been a key Western ally in North Africa, safeguarding the strategically important Strait of Gibralter, encouraging the Camp David accords from behind the scenes, and twice flying troops to Zaire's rebellious Shaba province. But the King's intransigence over Sahara increasingly has alienated him from other countries in his own region and beyond.

The International Court of Justice has ruled that Morocco's annexation of Sahara has no basis in international law. The UN General Assembly has condemned his actions, and the Organization of African Unity has called for a ceasefire, Moroccan troop withdrawal, and a referendum.

But Hassan marches to his own tune and has staked the legitimacy of his rule on victory in the war that analysts term a "Moroccan Vietnam." Hassan began the war to divert his military after they twice tried to overthrow him and to placate the nationalist Istaqlal party then strongly opposed to his rule. But now the war has created its own problems for him, as million-dollar-a-day expenditures play havoc with a Moroccan economy already shaky due to a severe slump in phosphate prices. Still, Hassan's 1981 draft budget allocates one-third of recurrent state spending for national security and defense. Popular support for the war within Morocco is reportedly ebbing, and Hassan is under pressure from the business community and the Moroccan parliament.

The US may want to help old friends. But the problem Congress faces is that more arms shipments may neither help Hassan nor safeguard America's own interests. The US is Algeria's major trading partner, and it imported a record contracts are being negotiated.

Selling Algeria arms, while it would make less problematic the US claim of neutrality in Sahara, would only escalate the situation. Our long-term interest in regional stability is thwarted as the Saharan war keeps North African countries from working together on other issues of mutual concern.

For example, the US, Morocco, and Algeria may all have an interest in stemming growing Libyan involvement with Polisario. Algeria receives arms from the Soviets, but President Chadli Benjedid is an economic pragmatist, considers his country nonaligned, and rejects foreign bases, including Soviet ones. In Libya's Colonel Qaddafi, however, the West faces an intractable and expansionist Soviet-aligned power. By helping King Hassan fight his unwinnable war without pressing both sides to negotiate, the US may be helping itself to a larger East-West conflict.

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