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The Moroccan Factor
Mauritania's role in the Western Sahara conflict was heavily influenced by perceived and real threats of Moroccan expansionism. In the 1950s, Morocco advanced its concept of Greater Morocco, which included all Mauritanian territory, based on an historic (if currently moribund) allegiance to the Moroccan sultan as a political and religious leader. To make matters worse, most of the Arab League states, the Soviet Union, several progressive African states, and groups within Mauritania, as well, supported that position. For example, Mauritanian Entente leader Babana had claimed that a union with Morocco would protect the rights of the Maures from encroachments by the black population.
Even after Morocco finally had recognized Mauritanian independence in 1969--nine years after it had been granted by France--and had withdrawn its claim to Mauritanian territory, the Daddah government remained suspicious of Moroccan intentions. Thus, Mauritania favored using the Western Sahara as a buffer between it and Morocco, either by controlling all or part of the Western Sahara or by creating an independent state.
From independence until the mid-1970s, Mauritania's policy on the Western Sahara vacillated as the government sought to balance its own interests against those of a more powerful Morocco. Until 1974 the Daddah government supported self-determination for the Western Sahara, to be exercised by means of a referendum, under the assumption that the Sahrawis would choose to join with Mauritania. This assumption was reasonable: there were close ethnic ties between the Sahrawis and the Maures; a large number of Sahrawi nomads had migrated into Mauritania; and many Maures were living in the Western Sahara. During the period from 1974 to 1975, however, after Morocco had made clear its intention of occupying the Western Sahara, Mauritania pursued policies fraught with contradictions. To please the international community, on which Mauritania depended for economic aid, Daddah continued to support policy of self-determination for the Sahrawi population. But to please the dominant Maures of Mauritania, the government reintroduced the concept of Greater Mauritania (see Glossary), asserting the country's rights over all of the Western Sahara. A third policy, acknowledging the reality of Moroccan power, called for a partition of the Western Sahara, which led Mauritania into a long and costly guerrilla war with the Polisario.
The Mauritanian campaign to annex Tiris al Gharbiyya (the southern province of the Western Sahara) did not have much support within Mauritania. Some Mauritanians favored instead the full integration of the Western Sahara, while others, who identified themselves as Sahrawi refugees, supported independence. Adamantly opposing absorption was Mauritania's southern black population, which viewed the resultant increase in the number of Maures as a threat. To the blacks, the Western Shara conflict was an Arab war.
In early 1975, both Morocco and Mauritania agreed to abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice on the status of the Spanish Sahara, but when the court ruled in October 1975 that neither country was entitled to claim sovereignty over the territory, both governments chose to ignore the decision. In November 1975, they concluded the Madrid Agreements with Spain under which Morocco acquired the northern two-thirds of the territory, while Mauritania acquired the southern third. The agreement also included the proviso that Spain would retain shares in the Bu Craa mining enterprise. Mauritania acquiesced to the agreements under the assumption, probably correct, that Morocco, with its superior military power, would otherwise have absorbed the entire territory.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress