Can Algeria find peace before it falls to pieces?

Civil war/ the road to another Bosnia

ONLY HOURS after Islamist gunmen had staged their first serious bomb attack on an Algerian police patrol near the village of Chaibia, a young military officer in Algiers angrily pondered the guerrilla war in which he was now engaged. "A classical war like this will never work," he concluded. "It didn't work for the French. It won't work for us. The only solution is to infiltrate them, dress like them, live like them, use their people."

There are signs the officer is not alone in this thinking. Islamist armed groups are obsessed by the thought that police agents have wormed their way into their movements, gained the trust of their "emirs", and sought to target fundamentalist cells for liquidation by a special "anti- terrorist brigade" which the Algerian government denies even exists. Unfortunately for the same officer, there are suspicions that the Islamists have infiltrated the security forces, smuggling arms to prisoners in Sekardji jail, alerting the Islamist opposition to police patrol routes.

Why, for example, did the bombers set four bombs under the road near Chaibia? Did they know that the police patrol was made up of four vehicles? Algerians who believe in the conspiracy theory of history have only to recall that it was a police bodyguard who killed President Mohamed Boudiaf in 1992.

It is not difficult to find causes for the Algerian tragedy. As the Lebanese journalist Rihad al-Rayis wrote last month in An Nahar, Algeria is faced with "a strong Islamist opposition which cannot be destroyed but which is too weak to topple the existing regime". The army-backed government is divided between those who still seek compromise and those who have convinced themselves that only a military campaign can crush "terrorism"; thus Algeria finds itself with a president, General Liamine Zeroual, who is trying to arrange presidential elections while his men are trying to liquidate the forces that would have won the last parliamentary elections.

The last hope - and Algeria produces a "last hope" almost every week - was the meeting in Rome between the legal opposition and the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), all of whom agreed last month that violence could not resolve the country's problems. European countries expressed approval; John Major, after all, accepted less from the IRA before he agreed the war might be over in Northern Ireland. But the Algerian government dismissed the initiative; denouncing violence, ministers said, was not the same as "renouncing terrorism".

The real problem for the government in Algeria is that dialogue with the FIS - dialogue involving the political future of the country, its constitution, the re-enactment of the cancelled 1992 second round of parliamentary elections - will inevitably lead to government defeat. Perhaps the "true face" of Islamist violence - throat-slashing, murder, suicide bombings, threats of anarchy - has turned a few fundamentalist voters away from the FIS. But continued government corruption, the unchecked brutality of the security forces and the sheer horror of the continuing war have convinced many Algerians that any settlement - be it Islamist or secular - is preferable to the current agony.

The dilemma for the Islamists is twofold. First, they must present a united front to Algerians. Already the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) operates separately from the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the military wing of the FIS, which last week announced the appointment of a new "emir", Madani Merzak, as a "provisional" leader of the organisation - a step which the Algerian government sees as a coup d'tat over the FIS political leadership.

Second, the Islamists must, if they attain power, show some awareness of the realities of power: Algeria must have an economic and foreign policy, the ability to run transport, trade, communications, the infrastructure of a modern nation-state. It is said in Algeria that the absence of attacks against the country's oil and gas reserves implies an understanding by the FIS that Algeria's natural resources and export potential must remain available to a new regime. What of foreign relations?

If France supports the current regime, what of the US, which the military government privately accuses of supporting the Islamists - on the grounds that Washington would like another Saudi Arabia in the Maghreb? True, a FIS spokesman remains in Washington. True, no Americans have been harmed in Algeria (though this may be due to the absence of US citizens). And true, too, the US urges "dialogue" with the Islamists, a policy they do not follow with Hamas or Islamic jihad or any of Israel's enemies. Would an Islamist Algeria be a friend of the Great Satan?

In Western eyes, the "moderates on both sides" must talk to each other. In reality, the extremists on both sides must talk to each other if any dialogue is ever to take place. Perhaps this is the task which Europe should set itself, some attempt at contact between the FIS and the army, between the Islamists and the eradicateurs. For the alternative is war on a Bosnian scale, not between secularists and Islamists but between Berbers and between Tuaregs, within Islamist groups and nationalist militias, between towns and villages. The only thing all sides agree on is a clich: that time is running out. The only real disagreement is over how much time is left.

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