Places in World Most Likely to Secede Western Sahara

About Western Sahara a place in the world likely to secede from Morocco, size, population, and history of conflict.



Size: 109,000 sq. mi. (282,310 sq. km.).

Population: 120,000.

Western Sahara is a completely desertcovered land located on the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa, bordered on the north by Morocco, on the south and east by Mauritania, and on the northeast by Algeria. Although it is a sandy wasteland, Western Sahara is a wealthy country. Off its shores are excellent fishing grounds, while beneath Western Sahara's deserts are 1.7 billion tons of phosphate ore, plus untapped deposits of iron and oil.

Until November, 1975, Western Sahara was a colonial possession of Spain, known as the Spanish Sahara. In the summer of 1975, the U.N. exerted pressure on the Spanish government to grant independence to Western Sahara. At the same time, King Hassan II of Morocco called upon his people to march unarmed into the region and liberate it by physically occupying it. Tens of thousands of Moroccans gathered in southern Morocco, along the Western Saharan border, to participate in this "Green March." Sensitive to international opinion, post-Franco Spain withdrew from Western Sahara, bowing to the U.N. and Moroccan demands. Since he had freed it from Spanish rule, King Hassan decided he owned Western Sahara and annexed the northern two thirds of the region, while giving the southern third to his neighbor, Mauritania, in November, 1976. Unfortunately, Morocco never consulted with Western Sahara's inhabitants concerning what their political desires and ambitions were.

Western Saharans are mostly Arabic Regeibat tribesmen, descendants of 8th-century Muslim conquerors who came from Yemen. A predominantly nomadic desert people, the Saharans are culturally, linguistically, and traditionally distinct from the Moroccans and Mauritanians. The Saharans regarded the Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation of their land as a foreign invasion. They wanted independence not only from Spain but also from their Muslim neighbors.

Early in 1976, nationalist Saharans led by Mohammed Wali founded the Frente Polisario--Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro, the two former provinces of the Spanish Sahara. Organized as a guerrilla army, the Polisario staged small-scale raids against Moroccan and Mauritanian troops and the towns and water-hole villages that they held. King Hassan retaliated by dispatching a third of his 100,000-man army to Western Sahara, while the Mauritanians increased their army from 5,000 to 12,000 men. As foreign troops poured into their desert homeland, nearly all able-bodied Saharan men joined the Polisario, swelling its ranks to 10,000 combatants.

King Hassan's archenemy, Algeria's socialist Pres. Houari Boumedienne, endorsed the Polisario cause and presently supplies it with Soviet weaponry. Polisario guerrillas established military bases and 22 refugee camps, where more than 60,000 Saharans now live, in south-western Algeria near the town of Tindouf. In Algeria, the socialist Polisario leadership formed a government-in-exile for Western Sahara, which they refer to as the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. With modern Soviet arms, Polisario units have launched increasingly larger and more numerous assaults and ambushes on the Moroccans and Mauritanians, who have been forced to retreat to fortified villages and towns. At present, the Polisario is in control of the Western Saharan countryside. Using Land Rovers and Toyota Landcruisers, the Polisario has carried the war into Morocco and Mauritania, where they attacked the capital city of Nouakchott, in June, 1976.

By 1978, 1,000 Saharans and 3,000 Moroccans and Mauritanians had died in the fighting. Although it is a financially costly and internationally embarrassing war for Morocco, King Hassan, with his U.S.-equipped army and air force, is determined to retain control of Western Sahara. With Soviet and Algerian backing, the Saharan Polisario is equally determined to win independence for its Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. Today the Polisario appears to have the advantage, because Mauritania is on the verge of military and economic collapse. However, no end to this desert war is seen in the near future. If independence comes. Western Sahara will become a socialist state and an ally and satellite of its benefactor, Algeria.

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