As Sahara U.S. mission comes up for renewal, some think it has become part of the problem
By John Thorne
12:32 a.m. October 28, 2006
RABAT, Morocco - For 15 years, U.N. peacekeepers policing the cease-fire between Moroccan troops and rebels in the Western Sahara have become a familiar sight.
Too familiar, perhaps. Some U.S. officials, anxious to promote a united North African front in the war on terrorism, worry that the presence of the peacekeepers in their white jeeps has become an excuse for perpetuating the 30-year stalemate rather than negotiating its end.
The matter comes to a head on Tuesday when the U.N. Security Council must decide whether to renew the mandate of the 300-strong force, already the oldest U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa.
The California-sized territory is thinly populated but rich in minerals. Its conflict poisons the air between regional heavyweights Morocco and Algeria, whom the U.S. wants working together against Islamic extremism. And it seriously complicates Moroccan diplomacy, because more than 50 states recognize the government-in-exile of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, as Western Sahara is known,while none accept Morocco's claim to the land.
The standoff frustrates trade and economic growth, and has stranded some 160,000 refugees deep in the Sahara desert.
A U.S. official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the sensitive U.N. debate, says that if the peacekeepers' presence is helping the parties negotiate a deal, it should stay, but if it just "entrenches the status-quo," its purpose and structure need to be reconsidered.
The force, with an annual budget of $44.6 million, must also pass the financial criteria that John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has sought to apply to the world body.
In an interview, Bolton said peacekeeping missions should be reviewed "across the board," with an eye to downsizing or elimination. He said a failed mission constitutes "a tragedy not only for the people involved but for the Security Council as well."
Bolton takes a particular interest in the Western Sahara conflict and has declared settling it a top priority.
Western Sahara was Spanish territory until 1975, when it was ceded to neighboring Morocco and Mauritania. The territory's native Arab nomads, called Saharawis, rallied to the Polisario Front, a Saharawi liberation movement that had been fighting Spanish colonial rule since 1973. Algeria, fearing Moroccan ambitions of becoming a territorial giant, now backed by the Polisario.
Most Saharawis fled to Algeria, where they built refugee camps in the desert where an estimated 160,000 still live, largely cut off from the 90,000 who remain in Moroccan-controlled territory.
The war lasted 16 years and killed thousands. Morocco built a 1,600-mile earthen barrier to prevent Polisario's hit-and-run raids. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire between Morocco and Polisario in 1991, and installed the peacekeeping force, called by its French acronym, MINURSO, to oversee the cease-fire and organize an independence referendum in Western Sahara.
With relative calm established, Morocco poured money and some 100,000 settlers into the region, hoping to influence the vote.
But U.N.-brokered negotiations, led for several years by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, have failed to secure agreement on voter lists, and the U.N. has all but officially abandoned the referendum.
The feud between Morocco and Algeria has sealed their land border, led Morocco to boycott the African Union, and hamstrung the launch of a North African trading bloc. Oil exploration off Western Sahara's shore is blocked by a U.N. ruling denying Morocco the right to grant oil contracts there.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has argued that MINURSO is vital for maintaining the cease-fire, and is urging Morocco and Polisario to hold unconditional talks aimed at securing the Saharawis' right to self-determination.
The U.N. is unlikely to cancel MINURSO altogether, said a U.N. official with significant experience dealing with Western Sahara, who asked not to be named.
But the official acknowledged that the peacekeepers have become "a security blanket for everybody," and that the parties need to be pressured into realizing that the status quo can't last.
Nobody is sure what would follow a U.N. withdrawal. The peacekeepers aren't allowed to intervene militarily, but they don't have to, since nobody is shooting. If the UN leaves, however, it could signal the end of the cease-fire, even if technically that's not the case.
Polisario's Washington representative, Mouloud Said, says Polisario might be tempted to resume fighting to force the hand of Moroccan King Mohammed VI. After "six or seven months of war, he'll be more realistic," he said in an interview. "And I think that's what he needs."
Polisario's army is thought to be no match for Morocco in open combat, but has proved an agile guerrilla force.
Morocco suggests a degree of regional autonomy with an elected governor and legislature, but rules out independence for what it calls its "southern provinces."
Polisario's Said calls autonomy "a dead idea." "Autonomy implies that Western Sahara is Moroccan," he said.
Associated Press Correspondent Nick Wadhams at the United Nations contributed to this report.