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Seesaw struggle in the Sahara; Morocco chases elusive Polisario fighters with help of US weapons -- but worries about USSR

A huge $200 million phosphate plant, built ten years ago, stands idle and empty near here on the sandy Atlantic coast -- a victim of sabotage. The plant is a casualty of the war that Morocco has been waging since 1976 against the Polisario Front, a Saharan guerrilla group based in adjoining Algeria.

This garrison town of 40,000 people, drowsing in the sun, seems a haven of peace with its small white or ochre houses topped with bubble domes that reflect the sun's heat.Saharan men in flowing robes and veiled Saharan women stroll the bright, clean streets.

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Only an occasional Moroccan French- built Mirage jet thundering overhead recalls the sporadic fighting over trackless desert between here and the Polisario guerrillas' sanctuary at Tindouf, in Algeria, 400 miles to the east.

To stem the Polisario, who strike by night in armored jeep columns over a desert they know well, King Hassan II of Morocco has poured 80,000 of his 115, 000-man Army and the bulk of his 62 jet fighters into this phosphate-rich area, known until 1975 as the Spanish Sahara.

On Spain's sudden withdrawal that year, Morocco and Mauritania occupied it jointly, but Mauritania, weary of Polisario raids, already has abandoned its share. Morocco has taken that over, too.

The mounting cost of the seesaw struggle and suspected war weariness in Morocco have posed the United States a difficult problem. US Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke has warned King Hassan that the Carter administration considers the war "unwinnable."

But to shore up the monarchy, the country's sole stabilizing force, and avert the risk of an Iranian-type coup at the strategic mouth of the Mediterranean, Washington has agreed to furnish Morocco $230 million in F-5 jets, helicopter gunships, and multipurpose bombers over the next two years.

This decision ended a long cutoff in arms to Morocco and a protracted debate in Congress. It is seen in Washington and here as a political bribe to strengthen the king -- and also to induce him to negotiate a settlement with Algeria, his rival and the Polisario's earliest backer.

King Hassan, however, is moving reluctantly.

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"The Polisario is merely another piece in the international fresco of Soviet subversion," he asserted recently to a delegation representing the New York-based Committee on American Foreign Policy.

"The Soviets have their eye on three global strangle-points: Morocco at the mouth of the Mediterranean, the entrance to the Red Sea, and the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. If they control these, they threaten not only Israel but three NATO allies who depend on Mediterranean shipping: Italy, Greece , and Turkey."

Briefing American visitors at the cavernous phosphate plant near here, senior Moroccan officers asserted that among the Polisario prisoners recently captured -- they declined to give numbers -- were Algerians and Mauritanians.

"Some of the dead . . . are not Arabs," said Col. Abdelaziz Benami, chief of staff to Gen. Ahmed Dlimi, overall troop commander. Asked whether these might have been Cuban, East European, or Soviet advisers, Colonel Benami declined comment.

The Polisario hard core, he added, are some 700 to 800 men -- but as many as 4,000 can be mobilized for specific attacks, as the Moroccans found last winter in clashes around Smara. The increase presumably comes by recruiting Saharans from adjoining countries: Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia, Mali, and Niger.

The Polisario, who seek to expel Morocco from the former Western Sahara and install an independent Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, claim to have pinned the Moroccans into the area's few towns.

This, the Moroccans deny. They concede that they suffered reverses during the winter but claim that they have repelled recent Polisario attacks, notably around Zaag three weeks ago, on the Moroccan-Algerian border. This claim is confirmed by independent American sources.

The Moroccans attribute some of their reverses to shortage of American equipment and to the disparity of the rest -- French, Austrian, Romanian, Chinese, Russian, whatever they can purchase.

By contrast, they say, the Polisario is being armed increasingly by Libya as well as by Algeria with modern Soviet equipment "as good as anything in the Warsaw Pact." They assert that 1,000 Soviet-trained Algerians are teaching the Polisario to handle the equipment.

"Saharan nomads don't learn to deploy Russian missile batteries by themselves ," said Colonel Benami, in fluent French.

In King Hassan's view, the former Spanish Sahara is a logical, geographical, and ethnic prolongation of Morocco; it is bound historically by the fealty of its nomads to his royal forebears long before the Spanish seized the area in 1860 to protect the offshore Canary Islands.

"We will never forfeit an inch of our sovereign territory," the King insists.

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