Analysis: Morocco's dual offensive

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor  |  April 16, 2007 at 11:50 AM
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WASHINGTON, April 16 (UPI) -- As Morocco faces renewed violence from terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaida, authorities have counter-attacked by launching a dual assault: anti-terror police operations to thwart the Islamist terrorists and a political campaign aimed at resolving the long-standing dispute over Western Sahara.

On April 10 U.S. State Department Undersecretary Nicholas Burns met with a senior Moroccan delegation to discuss the Western Sahara issue, while at the same time an autonomy proposal was delivered by the Moroccans to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.

El Mostafa Sahel, the new permanent representative of Morocco to the United Nations, told United Press International that the proposal came in "reply to the international community."

"Morocco has come up with a new proposal," said the diplomat. "There is something new, to put hand in hand to build something, to build peace in agreement with the people of the Sahara," he said.

The Moroccan ambassador told UPI said he fears a continuation of the conflict would benefit al-Qaida. Although there are no links between the two conflicts, continued unrest in Western Sahara can only benefit the terrorists.

Indeed, al-Qaida has re-emerged in Morocco last week by staging a series of suicide attacks, the latest resulting in the death of only the attackers.

Sahel said that Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization has established a base of operation in southern Algeria from where they can hit targets in the Maghreb and from there in Europe.

Al-Qaida's activities in the Maghreb are "very, very serious," the Moroccan ambassador said. "These are very dangerous groups who have lots of money from the traffic of arms and cigarettes and people and drugs. They have money, they have people and they have a philosophy."

Meanwhile, Moroccan officials have arrested two men suspected of leading the group that carried out the recent suicide attacks in Casablanca. Security experts believe the two are connected to a series of explosions in Casablanca last week and in March.

Moroccan police arrested the men Saturday, soon after two suicide bombers detonated their explosives belts in Casablanca, in a street where the U.S. cultural center and the U.S. Consulate are located.

Security in the area prevented the attackers from reaching their targets, who ended up killing only themselves and wounding a woman passerby. Authorities identified one of the dead bombers as Mohamed Maha. Another suspected terrorist was wearing an explosives belt at the time of his arrest.

Last week a man blew himself up when police broke into an apartment in the course of their investigation into the March 11 suicide bombing at an Internet cafe in Casablanca that wounded four people. Police shot and killed a second suspect before he could detonate his explosives. A third man fled and later blew himself up.

The re-emerging problems with al-Qaida might partially explain why after decades of stagnation, Morocco is re-launching a diplomatic offensive to pacify once and for all the crisis in the Sahara, which since it has occupied after the departure of the Spanish has remained like a desert thorn in Morocco's side.

Burns called Morocco's initiative "a serious and credible proposal to provide real autonomy for the Western Sahara." The United States hopes Morocco's initiative will create an opportunity for Morocco and the Polisario, a Sahrawi rebel movement working for the separation of Western Sahara from Morocco, to engage in direct negotiations, without preconditions, to resolve the Western Sahara dispute.

The proposal calling for negotiating autonomy for the Sahara Region includes a Moroccan commitment to a final political solution through a "positive, constructive and dynamic process" aimed at bringing autonomy to the Sahara, "within the framework of the kingdom's sovereignty and national unity."

The initiative says it would guarantee individual freedoms, raise economic and social development and bring hope for a better future to the region's populations by putting an end to separation and exile and promoting reconciliation.

The Moroccan initiative calls for a referendum at the outcome of the negotiations and calls on the other parties "to avail the opportunity to write a new chapter in the region's history."

Morocco guarantees Sahrawis inside and outside the territory to play a leading role in the bodies and institutions of the region, without discrimination or exclusion.

"The Sahara populations will themselves run their affairs democratically, through legislative, executive and judicial bodies enjoying exclusive powers. They will have the financial resources needed for the region's development in all fields, and will take an active part in the nation's economic, social and cultural life," the initiative suggests.

Morocco, however, wants to retain power in the "royal domains," especially in regards to defense, external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of the king.

In short, the initiative would mean acceptance of Morocco's sovereignty over the territory, a fact that the Polisario rejects.

"That is unacceptable," Ahmed Boukhari, the Polisario's U.N. representative, told UPI. "The Moroccan initiative says this territory, the Western Sahara, is Moroccan. They are saying this territory is mine."

The Polisario also presented the same day their proposal to the U.N. secretary-general. It is based on calling for a referendum as well, but unlike Morocco's initiative, the Polisario's offers three solutions: autonomy, independence or full integration.

The United Nations has rejected both proposals and has called for direct negotiations between the two parties.

"We are back at square zero," Boukhari said.

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