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Crackdown courts U.S. approval

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NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) -- The ruler of the Islamic African republic Mauritania is doing his utmost to be a loyal ally in the war on terrorism, jailing Muslim clerics for speaking against the war in Iraq, banning political sermons and outlawing anti-U.S. rallies.

Sparing no step, President Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Taya also has cracked down on mosques allegedly recruiting fighters for Iraq, shuttered some foreign-funded Koran schools, and expelled some foreign Islamic aid workers.

The upshot: an isolated, Sahara Desert nation that produced one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants is courting continuing American approval at the risk of an Islamic backlash.

"Sept. 11 hurt us so much -- we don't want that kind of thing. But this fight in Iraq -- the Americans have hit right at the heart of Islam," says Yacoub Jellal, speaking in a vast mobile-phone market in Nouakchott, Mauritania's glaringly sunlit capital of battered taxis and donkey-drawn carts.

"If I find a bomb, I'll put it in my heart and explode next to an American soldier. I haven't yet lived my life," the 35-year-old businessman says, "but I'll die to kill one American soldier."

Many in the capital say they have heard of Mauritanians taking up arms against the United States in Iraq. But they only know one case for sure: a military officer said to have set off for Baghdad with fanfare, only to return without firing a shot.

Still, allying with the United States risks stirring Islamic anger at home and exposing this northwest African country to bloodshed similar to what Muslim Turkey has endured in the past week.

Nearly twice the size of France, its former colonial ruler, the country of 2.7 million straddles Arab and African worlds and produced the man known as Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, a religious counselor and alleged terrorism planner for bin Laden. He is now thought to be in Iran.

Mauritania has long been dominated by its Arab elite, a 30 percent minority governing a 60 percent majority of black Africans and mixed Arab-Africans.

For years Western diplomats have worried that terrorist networks could exploit Mauritania's poorly guarded beaches and borders and its ancient trans-Sahara trade routes to the Middle East.

As the Iraq invasion unfolded, authorities rounded up nearly 50 religious leaders, suspected radicals and alleged members of a banned Ba'ath political party linked to Saddam. By August, prisoners were being released.

Many Mauritanians saw the crackdown as a pretext for hitting the opposition ahead of this month's presidential election. Some also believe the government played it up to impress the United States.

Washington provides at least $10 million in annual aid. And it can help Mauritania get more funding out of international agencies.

"Personally, I'm for the war in Iraq. Saddam was a dictator, a tyrant," says Amadou Djiby Kelly, a 30-year-old student.

"But there are people here who support Saddam Hussein and these arrests will only worsen the situation ... If they continue, it will be bad for peace," Kelly said. "The country is unstable right now."

That instability was highlighted on June 8, when street fighting swept Nouakchott as loyalist forces put down a coup attempt by midlevel officers. Estimates of death tolls range from 15 to more than 100. Some Mauritanian and Western officials think Islamic extremists were involved.

In the election, Taya beat challenger Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, a former military dictator whom Taya himself had overthrown in a 1984 coup.

The government then jailed Haidalla, claiming coup plots. He remains in prison.

Mauritania has not had a peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from France in 1960. The opposition says the latest vote, and those before it, were skewed.

Taya has been in power for 19 years, and his switch to backing Washington marks a dramatic change from 1991, when he condemned the world coalition against Saddam, and was shunned by the West and rich Gulf states as a result.

Mauritania, an Arab League member state, has since broken relations with Iraq and, spurred on by the United States, opened full diplomatic ties with Israel.

It remains the only Arab League nation to keep full-scale relations throughout three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

After speakers in mosques lectured against the current Iraq invasion, the government and its ties with Israel, officials decreed that only clerics could preach in mosques -- and only on religious topics.

They closed some Koranic schools, including a Saudi-backed, green-and-cream colored institution with 2,000 pupils. Some Islamic charities -- especially those receiving overseas funds -- lost operating rights.

Police broke up anti-war marches with tear gas and batons. Islamic political blocs remain banned.

"What do we need Islamic parties for? We're already an Islamic nation," says a Taya spokesman, Mohamed Ould Bellal.

Bellal says Islamic militants want Mauritania to "follow the same ideas as Osama Bin Laden."

But Mohamed Sidy, a market vendor, said Iraqis and Mauritanians are both Arab, "So we'll always support them against the Americans."

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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