US antiterror ally ousted, but a democracy promised

Coup leaders in Mauritania appoint new prime minister. Will US forces be invited back?

The United States denounced the loss of one of its closest allies on the African frontier of the global "war against terror" after Mauritania's president was ousted last week in a bloodless coup.

But some analysts say that the long-term campaign for hearts and minds in the troublesome sub-Saharan region may now stand a better chance of success.

Street celebrations broke out last Wednesday here in the capital after a 17-man military junta - led by the same inner circle that helped bring strongman President Maaouiya Ould Taya to power - seized control of the oil-rich nation..

The coup leaders call themselves the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, and say they are putting "an end to the totalitarian practices" and pledge to hold free elections within two years.

A week later, motorists here are still honking their horns in approval. "This was a white coup, absolutely," says a taxi driver named Ibrahim. "It is calm here. Everyone is welcome, except for [President] Taya."

Training from US troops

Washington had enlisted Mr. Taya as a key partner in its Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), a five-year, $500 million program that kicked off in June across nine West and North African countries (Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco, and Tunisia). American units have already begun training 3,000 troops from Mauritania and other Saharan armies to improve border security in a region considered to be a potential hotbed for terrorist activity.

Priority No. 1 is to crush the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), according to Maj. Gen. Thomas Csrnko, head of US Special Operations Command Europe. The GSPC is estimated to have about 300 fighters and is linked to Al Qaeda. It has kidnapped dozens of European tourists and claimed responsibility for a spate of recent attacks in the Sahel - a vast, lawless zone that spans the southern edge of the Sahara.

At the start of TSCTI training exercises in June, officials said that 25 percent of foreign fighters captured in Iraq hail from Saharan Africa. And they said that a stream of veteran jihadis are returning to North and West African countries to use insurgent tactics developed in Iraq against their native governments.

Prior to the coup, however, some analysts warned that heavy-handed US military and financial support for Taya could backfire. "President Ould Taya's regime is taking advantage of the international context to legitimize its denial of democratic rights, while giving credence to the concept that Islamists are linked to the armed rebels in order to discredit them," said a recent report by International Crisis Group, a Brussels think tank. "This has made the antiterrorist program unpopular among some Mauritanians," says Princeton Lyman, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Balancing military, civilian programs

The International Crisis Group said that if Mauritanian opposition leaders continued to be jailed - and "purely military" aid from the US was seen as reinforcing Taya's dictatorship - a toxic blend of Islamic radicalism and anti-American sentiment could develop. The report recommended setting up a "healthier balance between military and civilian programs" in the region.

Now that Taya is out of the picture, Mr. Lyman says US counterterrorism efforts in Africa are free of their "weakest link" - one that rang of hypocrisy. It is hoped that an eventual transition to democracy will stabilize the country. But he says "it is too soon" to know if the new leaders will cooperate with the US in the TSCTI.

A source close to a military official involved in the overthrow said the junta's promise to "prepare and establish true democratic institutions" should be taken at face value, since coup leaders already occupied "privileged positions" in a system of entrenched patronage. The junta has started freeing political prisoners, held meetings with opposition parties, and named an interim prime minister Sunday.

But some say the coup was timed to cash in on new revenues. Next year, Mauritania will start pumping significant amounts of oil, perhaps making it Africa's fourth-largest producer, says Lyman. He adds that the use of oil proceeds "is relevant to our growing concerns about the transparency, governance, and stability of oil-supplying countries."

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