Morocco arms itself with determination against US position on Western Sahara
RABAT - Morocco's steadfast opposition to US-backed plans to broaden the mandate of UN peacekeepers in the disputed Western Sahara to human rights monitoring threatens to sour relations with key ally Washington.
Rabat on Monday described the proposal as an attempt to "deform" the mandate of the two-decade-old peacekeeping force, and has launched a campaign in defence of the kingdom's "sovereignty" over the territory it annexed in 1975.
Government supporters have called a protest march to the US embassy on Sunday.
The UN peacekeeping force has monitored a ceasefire in the Western Sahara between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front since 1991, but it is not charged with monitoring human rights.
When its mandate comes up for renewal at the Security Council at the end of April, UN sources say Washington has drafted a resolution that will propose adding "monitoring and reporting on human rights" to its responsibilities.
The US embassy admitted on Friday that there had been some negative fallout on relations but played down its extent.
"Certainly this is a bump in the road. But I think Morocco will remain a strong ally and a partner," embassy spokesman Rodney Ford said.
In the clearest sign yet of its displeasure, Morocco cancelled annual war games with the US military, which had been due to take place throughout April and involve 1,400 US and 900 Moroccan military personnel.
Government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi summoned the foreign press on Tuesday to underline Morocco's "categorical rejection" of the "biased and unilateral initiative" to broaden the UN force's mandate.
He stopped short of naming the United States but warned the plan would have "harmful consequences for the stability of the region."
A delegation led by palace adviser and former foreign minister Tayeb Fassi Fihri has been dispatched abroad to solicit the support of key players, including Russia.
This week, nine Moroccan organisations expressed opposition to a role for the UN force, insisting human rights in the former Spanish colony "has always been at the centre of our attention."
The 1991 ceasefire left Moroccan troops in control of all the Western Sahara's main population centres with Polisario forces restricted to a strip of desert on the Algerian border.
But efforts to broker a lasting settlement have been deadlocked by Polisario's demand for Sahrawis to decide whether or not they want independence in a UN-monitored referendum.
Rabat has offered a solution based on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.
The impasse has stoked growing international concern amid insecurity this year in other parts of the Sahel, notably Mali where French-led troops have been fighting an Islamist insurgency.
The International Crisis Group's North Africa director, Bill Lawrence, said it was unlikely the spat would have a lasting impact on historically close ties between Washington and Rabat, despite Morocco being "very upset."
"The strategic relationship will probably trump this kerfuffle. But some things have changed. Certainly human rights is growing in importance, both domestically in Morocco and internationally," he said.