Morocco Seeks U.S. Help in Western Sahara Fighting

By Howard Simons and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 10, 1981

RABAT, Morocco -- From the air, the sand walls built by Morocco to keep out Polisario guerrilla raids seem to stretch across the western Sahara desert without end, punctuated every three of four miles by forts that look like those children make on beaches.

Most of Morocco's Army in the contested territory of the former Spanish Sahara 600 miles south of here sits dug into the miniforts, behind 400 miles of land mines and surrounded by barbed wire and radar.

Its mission is to protect the 103,000-square-mile territory claimed by the Libyan- and Algerian-backed Polisario as the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic but absorbed by Morocco as its rightful heritage from precolonial times.

"The security belt is not a Maginot Line, but rather an obstacle to infiltration," said Col. Naji Mekki, a French-educated professional who fought against Israel on the Golan Heights in 1973 and now commands troops guarding a large chunk of the nine-foot-high wall.

As an obstacle, in the assessment of Moroccan and foreign military specialists in this North African country, the wall has indeed halted most infiltration into the main population centers that King Hassan II has defined as the "useful Sahara."

In the last few weeks, however, the six-year-old war for control of this Arab wasteland has shown signs of expanding beyond infiltration and Polisario's traditional hit-and-run raids. As a result, Hassan is seeking increased military and diplomatic help from the United States. And the Reagan administration, in response, is considering providing U.S. training that would add search-and-destroy commando tactics to the Moroccan military's mostly static defenses.

Francis J. (Bing) West Jr., assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said during a visit in Morocco with a 23-member U.S. military team that the administration will try to provide U.S. radar detection and jamming equipment, which is used to defend against ground-to-air missiles, for Hassan's American-made F5 and French-made Mirage I warplanes.

In doing so, West appeared to accept Morocco's charge that Polisario has deployed Soviet-made SA6 missiles since a major battle Oct. 13 at the desert outpost of Guelta Zemmour, gaining the capability of downing even high-flying Moroccan ground support or reconnaissance planes for the first time since the conflict began.

Western military experts who have been following the war raised the possibility that the five Moroccan planes shot down around Guelta Zemmour might have been hit by SA9s -- heat-seeking missiles that do not use the radar guidance devices that the U.S. equipment is designed to thwart.

Polisario guerrillas previously had used only shoulder-fired SA7 missiles, which are unable to hit high-flying Moroccan reconnaissance aircraft. The SA9, according to U.S. experts, is an upgraded version of the SA7, with greater speed and altitude. Its introduction, along with T54 tanks reportedly used at the Guelta Zemmour battle, represents what Moroccan and foreign military experts here view as a significant increase in the quality of Libyan-supplied weaponry for the guerrillas.

In a conversation with the head of Morocco's Air Force, Col. Maj. Mohammed Kabbaj, West strongly suggested that part of the response should also be a shift to more aggressive and mobile tactics by Morocco's 150,000-man armed forces and that the United States is prepared to offer training to meet this end.

"We can train General Dlimi's forces," West was overheard saying to Kabbaj in the bar of Fez's best hotel. He referred to Gen. Ahmed Dlimi, chief of Hassan's armed forces.

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© 1981 The Washington Post Company