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Mauritania's Military Junta Stays Foreign Policy Course


The leaders of last month's coup in Mauritania, despite expectations, have not changed the country's foreign policy of maintaining close relations with the United States and Israel. The sparsely populated, impoverished country in the Sahara desert, analysts say, is a front-line in against the spread of Islamic extremism into western Africa.

The sound of Islamic prayer is heard everywhere in the capital Nouakchott.

Mauritania, bridging north and sub-Saharan Africa, is just one of three Arab League countries to have diplomatic ties with Israel. The other two are Jordan and Egypt.

Politically, says human rights lawyer Mohamed Ould Yarba, the close relationship with Israel was very costly for President Maaouiya Ould Taya, who was ousted by the military in a bloodless coup last month.

Mr. Yarba says Mauritania has had a complex relationship with Israel. The problem with Ould Taya, he says, is that he was too close to Israel, and too open about his relations with the government there, especially during times of Israeli raids into Palestinian territories.

This, he says, was one of the main reasons why he was ousted by the military and why the August military coup was so popular. At the same time, however, Mr. Yarba says, Mauritanians value their relationship with Israel despite their disagreement with Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

The military council now in power has declared it will keep the country's diplomatic ties with Israel intact and leave it up to the next elected government to make changes.

Mr. Yarba says Mauritanians are also very proud of their country's close ties with the United States. He says Mauritanians want to deepen cooperation in many domains. But he says, Mauritania should also reserve the right to disagree with U.S. policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, even if it continues to be a U.S. ally in fighting terrorism.

The U.S. government sent military experts to Mauritania this year to help tackle roaming Islamic militants, particularly a group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an active north African movement on the U.S list of terrorist organizations.

Mauritania's military council recently gave amnesty to more than one hundred political prisoners, including many religious activists who had been persecuted by the former president, but decided to keep behind bars extremists who were suspected of having trained with Salafists in Algeria.

A West Africa analyst for a British-based research center, Olly Owen, says the military has been able to please both the domestic audience and Mauritania's international partners.

"They've certainly expressed all the intentions that people would like to see from them - both people internationally and people inside Mauritania," said Mr. Owen. "So they've been very careful to tell the domestic interests that, yes, you're going to see an end to the kind of highly repressive practices you saw in the previous regime and they've also been very careful to reassure the outside world that look we're still going to be a consistent partner on the war on terror and we're going to take the middle line in continuing to recognize Israel."

The U.S government has said it is ready to work with the country's new military council and continue cooperation in the war against international terrorism.

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