A U.S. program aimed at helping Mauritania to combat international terrorism is raising concern in the Muslim community and among human rights advocates who see it as a tool for propping up an oppressive government.
Last month, the United States sent a team of military experts to Mauritania to help train soldiers to fight cross-border terrorist activity. Of particular concern to the United States are reports of terrorist activities in neighboring Morocco and Algeria, and intelligence information that al-Qaida is running training camps in the region.
The training is part of a wider $100 million program, called the U.S. Pan-Sahel Initiative, designed also to assist the governments of nearby Niger, Chad and Mali.
In Mauritania, the only country where the U.S. funded program is already underway, Islamic leaders and human rights activists are warning it could backfire, and instead of guarding against terrorism, incite terrorist activities.
Human rights lawyer Barhim Ould Ebetty, who has been jailed for denouncing slavery in Mauritania, says the United States is only helping the autocratic government in Nouakchott. He says there is no risk of terrorism in Mauritania. There is no threat right now, he says, this is an attempt to strengthen an illegitimate government and to stifle pro-democracy movements.
Last year's presidential election reinstated in office incumbent Maaouiya Ould Taya, who has been in power since 1984.
In the run-up to the elections, the government arrested the leading opposition candidate and dozens of Islamic leaders, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government. It released them after the election.
Mauritania's outspoken Muslim leader, Mohamed Jemil Ould Mansour, says the U.S. anti-terrorism program is not helping the people of Mauritania.
He says Mauritanians need democracy and justice rather than more security. He says without greater transparency in government, freedom of expression and free and fair elections, Mauritania is facing greater instability.
An independent journalist from the newspaper Nouackchott Infos, Isselmou Ould Moustapha, agrees focusing on security is not enough to tackle the terrorist threat in the region. He says Mauritania cannot just focus on religious extremism and border controls in fighting terror. He says the only way to combat terrorism effectively is to address the root causes, such as political oppression, poverty and illiteracy.
Mauritanian government officials refused to speak to VOA, but a columnist for the ruling party's newspaper, Abdallah Ould Bilil, says the threat of terrorism in Mauritania comes from the outside, and the U.S. program is justified. He says developing countries are the most exposed to terrorist attacks. He says that Mauritania, given its vast desert regions and its dangerous neighborhood, is particularly vulnerable.
U.S. officials share his concern. A U.S. diplomat at a recent news conference in Mauritania, said, even though the country may not be the hotbed of terror activity, there have been threats made against U.S. interests in Mauritania. The official said the partnership between the United States and Mauritania in the battle against terrorism long predates the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.