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Mauritania became an independent nation on Nov. 28, 1960, and was admitted to the United Nations in 1961 over the strenuous opposition of Morocco, which claimed the territory. In the late 1960s, the government sought to make Arab culture dominant. Racial and ethnic tension between Moors, Arabs, Berbers, and blacks was widespread.

Mauritania and Morocco divided the territory of Spanish Sahara (later called Western Sahara) between them after the Spanish departed in 1975, with Mauritania controlling the southern third. The Polisario Front, indigenous Saharawi rebels, fought for the territory against both Mauritania and Morocco. Increased military spending and rising casualties in the region helped bring down the civilian government of Ould Daddah in 1978. A succession of military rulers followed. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara.

In 1984, Col. Maaouye Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya took control of the government. He relaxed Islamic law, fought corruption, instituted economic reforms urged by the International Monetary Fund, and held the countrys first multiparty parliamentary elections in 1986. Although the 1991 constitution set up a multiparty democracy, politics remain ethnically and racially based. The primary conflict is between blacks, who dominate the southern regions, and the Moorish-Arabic north, which holds political power. Racial tensions reached a peak in 1989 when Mauritania went to war with Senegal in a dispute over their shared border. As each country repatriated citizens of the other, critics accused Mauritania of taking the opportunity to expel thousands of blacks.

In 1992, Taya won the nations first multiparty presidential election, which opponents charged was rigged. Tayas attempts to restructure the economy provoked periodic protests, the most serious of which were the bread riots in Nouakchott in 1995.

Although Mauritania officially abolished slavery in 1980, the nation continued to tolerate the enslavement of blacks by North African Arabs. In 1993, the U.S. State Department estimated

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