Saddam Hussein taught the world a lesson when he killed off the Kurds with poison gas. If you do it quickly, quietly and completely, you can get away with a massacre of your own people and generate a minimum of fuss from the rest of the world.

Saddam's allies, the Arab Baathist Moors in the North African nation of Mauritania, are playing their own deadly game of "now you see them, now you don't," raising hardly a peep from the rest of the world.

During the past month, Mauritania has arrested 1,000 Hal-pulaars, the largest black ethnic group in the Arab dominated country. The arrests have been politically motivated, and there have been no trials. These new arrests come on top of the 50,000 Hal-pulaar expulsions we reported last February. Blacks are being driven out of the country, tortured and killed.

A former Mauritanian diplomat, Mohamed Nacir Athie, who defected to the United States in 1989, told us that Mauritania's hidden agenda is to subdue black influence and pave the way for an all-Baathist Arab state, like its friend Iraq.

Mauritania has had extensive economic, political and military ties to Iraq since 1975. It is one of the few countries that has taken Iraq's side in the Persian Gulf crisis.

Athie told us that young Mauritanians routinely have gone to Iraq for their military training and Baathist indoctrination. Those students come home to high positions in the Mauritanian civil service and military. Now reports say that Mauritanians were offered money to fight for Iraq -- $1,500 for the first month and $1,000 a month thereafter.

Athie said that not only did Saddam provide arms to the Mauritanian military, but he also used Mauritanian soil to test Iraqi missiles. During the Iran-Iraq war, Mauritania was the main supplier of fish to the Iraqi army. The country boasts some of the most fertile fishing waters in the African continent.

Since August, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the State Department has been warning Americans not to travel to Mauritania and has authorized "the compulsory departure of non-essential dependents" of U.S. government personnel, because, as one official put it, "there are some elements (in Mauritania) that may harm American citizens." The State Department said the warning has nothing to do with the purges of black Mauritanians, but declined to say whether the threat to Americans would come from Iraqi sympathizers in Mauritania.

Evidently the systematic elimination of blacks in Mauritania is not reason enough alone for the Bush administration to put Mauritania in the doghouse.

Amnesty International and Africa Watch have monitored Mauritania closely and are worried, with good reason. Blacks from all walks of life are disappearing. One Amnesty report says, "People taken by troops have had their heads crushed with heavy stones or cut off and paraded around village centers to intimidate others. Others have been shot dead simply for fishing while a curfew was in place."

Monitoring organizations have compiled hundreds of reports about architects, writers, policemen, hospital workers, postal employees, teachers and their students being rounded up. Key civil servants have been hauled away to prison camps. "Every Mauritanian I've met can tell you a story about somebody taken away," an Africa Watch official told us.

The Mauritanian government says it is only arresting people because of a coup plot that was uncovered last November. But the number and nature of the disappearances and arrests paint a far more sinister picture.

Ken Rutherford, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania, told our reporter Jonathan Ullman that black men are taken from their homes in nighttime raids, put in cattle trucks and taken to the river that separates Mauritania and Senegal. Their captors force them to cross the river into Senegal and tell them not to come back.

Those captives who aren't expelled are subject to torture. We have obtained recent letters written by Hal-pulaars and smuggled out of Mauritania. They describe atrocities that include starvation in prison and the complete disappearance of villages as large as 400. Hal-pulaar students in the United States have told us that their families have warned them not to come home for fear of arrest.

While the United States refrains from comment, there is growing speculation by human rights groups that up to 10 percent of the Hal-pulaar people arrested since late November have already been executed.

Athie, like all Hal-pulaars we spoke to, told of the torture of his friends and relatives. One man starved to death in jail after being fed "small portions of rice seasoned with sand," Athie said. "What we are experiencing is apartheid in Mauritania worse than in South Africa."

1991, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.