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Published: Wednesday, 8/13/2008

Desert coup

A MILITARY coup d'etat in Mauritania last week overthrew the first civilian president chosen in a multicandidate election in that country's postindependence history.

Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960 and had military or ex-military civilian rulers from 1978 until 2007, when President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was elected. He lasted just over a year, until he fired four top military officers, including Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, head of the presidential guard and former army chief of staff. At that point, an 11-officer High Council of State, with General Abdel Aziz at the head, seized power, arresting President Abdallahi and his prime minister.

The United States was providing military aid, economic assistance, and humanitarian help to Mauritania, a mostly desert and semidesert country of 3.4 million people. U.S. assistance to the military was based on an alleged al-Qaeda threat there. Mauritania's population is virtually entirely Sunni Muslim.

Mauritanians, for the most part, live off agriculture and herding. The country has iron ore deposits, some gold and copper, and apparently some offshore oil and gas, although it has exported none and cannot be described as an oil state.

The United States has now shut down all but its humanitarian aid because of the coup. The African Union has announced that it is suspending Mauritania's membership pending a return to constitutional government. The new military council has pledged elections within two months.

Given the short life of Mauritania's democratic experiment and its general track record, the military junta's pledge of rapid elections is hard to believe, and, even if elections are held, that the military would respect the independence of action of a civilian government. What kind of a government is it that cannot fire senior military officers without being overthrown itself?

It is also difficult to see why the United States has been providing aid to the Mauritania military, strengthening an army that has with dreary regularity over the past 30 years seized or held political power in the country.

It would appear to be the sort of desert adventure that America can easily do without.



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