A RENEWED diplomatic push has begun for a long-awaited referendum in which natives of the disputed Western Sahara will choose independence or integration with Morocco. UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar arrives Sunday in Morocco. His six-day visit to the region will also take in Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria - other nations concerned with the Western Sahara question.
Morocco claimed the Western Sahara when Spain pulled out in 1976. But the guerrilla Polisario Front, which had been fighting the Spanish, then fought Morocco for independence for the 102,700-square-mile desert territory.
Last August, Morocco and the Polisario accepted a plan for a referendum to settle their 10-year, low-level war. At that time, it was tacitly understood that the process should begin by this August, and that balloting could take place by the end of the year.
But talks in January between Morocco's King Hassan and a Polisario team ended on a chilly note. There has been little progress since. Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar hopes to win agreement on arrangements for the referendum.
Meanwhile, the UN has continued behind-the-scenes preparations. A UN military committee is preparing proposals for reducing Moroccan troop strength in the Western Sahara. At least 80,000 Moroccans man a 1,400-mile moveable, radar-equipped ``wall'' of bulldozed sand that excludes the Polisario from all but a narrow strip of the Western Sahara.
The Polisario says that there are at least twice as many Moroccan soldiers on the wall. It has demanded the complete withdrawal of all Moroccan troops, administration, settlers, and laws prior to the referendum.
But it has indicated that it will compromise if Moroccan forces are reduced to parity with the Polisario's 7,000 to 8,000 men.
To prepare a list of eligible voters, the UN has been quietly working with the Spanish experts who prepared a 1974 census that lists 74,000 Sahrawis, indigenous inhabitants of the area.
At one time or another, both sides raised objections to the list. But last year they agreed that only those on the list who are now above 18 years of age can vote. The Polisario estimates that the final number of eligible voters will be in the range of 55,000 to 60,000.
Both sides claim to now have pretty firm calculations of which way the vote will go. They says they know where each voter is and his likely preference. Both sides state publicly and privately with absolute conviction that they will win. They each accuse the other of footdragging ``because they know they will lose.''
The game is now in the numbers, and the two sides have closely held strategies for manipulating the rules to get the results they want. Now there is angling to accommodate some ``real'' Sahrawis not counted in the census.
There are officially 165,000 Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, a border town in Algeria. Officials knowledgeable about the plan confirm that all refugees living in Polisario-run camps in Tindouf and who are eligible according to the census to participate in the referendum are to return to the Western Sahara for a three- to six-month electoral campaign.
A 1982 Moroccan census counted 132,000 people in the cities of the Western Sahara - without differentiating between those originally from the territory and those from the north.
Morocco's Minister for Saharan Affairs, Khallihenna Ould Rachid, explained that at least 40,000 native Sahrawis fled their homes or were expelled during Spain's colonial rule, seeking refuge in a slice of Saharan territory that Spain turned over to Morocco in 1958.
These Saharan refugees were not included in the 1974 census, and became Moroccan. Many have now returned to their homes or rejoined their families in the Western Sahara, ``but we do not consider them northerners ...'' the Moroccan minister said.
This group includes some now supportive of Polisario who are termed ``fakes'' by Moroccans, as well as many who are denounced by the Polisario as Moroccan ``colonial settlers.''
None of the refugees in the Algerian border town of Tindouf seem to pin their hopes solely on the referendum. ``We are sure we will win, if the referendum is held,'' a woman said. ``If it is not held, we will continue our struggle.''
A blue-robed elder who had been a tribal representative in the former Spanish assembly said, ``The people do discuss the possibility of a referendum, and hope it will take place - but whether that will be sooner or later, we don't know.
``In reality, it is not necessary to make the referendum because the people have already decided: they don't want Morocco and they don't want anyone. But we have agreed to go along to satisfy the UN and other people.
``If Morocco accepts the referendum, okay. If they don't, we'll continue the war,'' he said.
His thoughts were echoed by a Sahrawi in a sun-bleached military uniform, faded olive headscarf, and rubber thong sandals.
``What we want is to be free and independent from everyone - from Spain, from Morocco, from Algeria, from everyone,'' he shrugged.