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March 7, 1999

Unexpectedly, Algerian Peace Seems Possible

By JOHN F. BURNS

ALGIERS, Algeria -- As a muezzin's afternoon call to prayers rang through the cobbled alleyways of Algiers' Casbah, Mouloud Takdjout settled into a comfortable niche in the old city wall and watched fellow Muslims hurry past.

Dangling a cigarette from his mouth, the 50-year-old "wall man" -- the nickname Algerians give to their millions of unemployed -- tapped his foot to the mesmeric beat of a Berber pop song playing on his transistor radio, and talked of an Algeria that may at last be emerging from a nightmare.

"Everything has an end, including this, and we are within sight of the finish," he said, referring to the savage war between Algeria's military rulers and Islamic guerrilla groups that has taken at least 80,000 lives since it began in 1992.

The strife erupted after the shadowy group of generals who hold real power in this nation of 28 million canceled a second round of elections that were on the verge of securing a parliamentary majority for a militant Islamic party. The Casbah, a maze of streets in the old Turkish quarter of Algiers, became for most people almost completely off-limits, its traditional vitality dulled by the lurking presence of Islamic guerrillas who used it as a base to mount bombings, ambushes and assassinations, terrorizing Algiers as their allies outside the capital terrorized much of the rest of the country.

In many cases, the dead were civilian women and children, sometimes babies only a few months old. Often the killers cut victims' throats, burned them alive, gouged out their eyes, or hacked them to pieces. Few foreigners ventured into the legendary Casbah, even with the posse of armed bodyguards that are every visitor's inseparable shadows. Rumors of government complicity in the violence abounded, but -- despite promises -- the generals never allowed international human rights groups to probe the allegations.

Now, to the surprise of many Algerians, the situation has eased. A presidential election, scheduled for April 15, has come alive, with 11 candidates representing an array of political opinions, and a promise from the army not to rig the ballot, as it has in the past.

The group of generals who control the government, known to French-speaking Algerians as "Le Pouvoir" -- The Power -- reached a cease-fire pact in the fall of 1997 with the Islamic Salvation Army, the guerrilla group that launched the war. Last September, the retired general who held formal power as Algeria's president, Liamine Zeroual, stunned the nation by announcing his resignation 19 months before the end of his five-year term, ushering in April's ballot.

Many Algerians have concluded that a faction among the generals, known as "The Conciliators," have been so shocked by the years of violence that they have concluded that they must begin transferring at least a measure of power to elected politicians if Algeria is to have any hope of ending its crisis.

"Just like the power structure in the Soviet Union, we have been ruled by a monolith, but it is a monolith with deep internal fissures," said Hocine Ait-Ahmed, a 73-year-old presidential candidate who was one of the nine men who, in 1954, met secretly in France to found the National Liberation Front, the group that led Algeria's war against France, which ended in independence in 1962. "The generals are divided among themselves, and that has given us a small opening that we must not fail to exploit."

Takdjout's laid-back demeanor in the Casbah was emblematic of the new, more hopeful mood. Only 18 months ago, edicts by the Armed Islamic Group, a breakaway guerrilla faction known for its brutality, imposed a fearful conformity on the Casbah that included mandatory attendance at prayers, bans on cigarette smoking and on the sale of a popular tobacco snuff known as chemma, and on the playing of music of any kind. There was also a prohibition on women venturing out unveiled, or unaccompanied by close male relatives.

Since the cease-fire, the level of violence has plunged, to the point where fewer than 200 people died in terrorist attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that ended in February, compared with more than 1,600 in the same period in 1998. Even former partisans of the two political extremes, the generals and the Islamic hard-liners, seem to have been so alienated by the violence that they have turned against intolerant politics of all shades.

"The Islamists? They are rubbish, killers and thieves, nothing more," said Takdjout, his face shaded by a sailor's cap acquired when he worked in the customs house in the port of Algiers. That was before strife and plunging oil prices sent the Algerian economy into a free fall, before he lost his job, and before Islamic guerrillas burst into the home of his brother Omar, a policeman, and shot him to death in front of his wife and children.

Like scores of other Algerians interviewed in the last 10 days, Takdjout seemed equally disillusioned with the military rulers. "They're finished now, the Islamists, and good riddance to them, I say," he said. "But it's finished for the generals, too. Algeria's going to be a democracy, you'll see. It's the international pattern, isn't it? Why should Algeria be an exception?"

Not all Algerians are as quick to write off the Islamic guerrillas or the political party, the Islamic Salvation Front, which won the support of half the country's voters in the aborted election in December 1991. With the party banned and its leaders imprisoned or under house arrest, there is no way to know the Islamic group's intentions. Foreign reporters, required to be accompanied everywhere by government bodyguards, are told that the Islamic leaders are not available for interviews.

The same goes for Zeroual and the country's most powerful generals, making it hard to assess how they see the future, particularly the prospect that April's ballot might lead eventually to a South Africa-style investigation into the past and into alleged government involvement in massacres.

The Armed Islamic Group, at any rate, still shuns the cease-fire and accounts for dozens of victims each month. Earlier this past week, the group was blamed for an attack in the western Algerian town of Ain Defla in which nine members of two families were killed as they slept. The throats of four victims, all children under 10, had been cut. Only days before, a bomb, also attributed to the group, killed four people dining in a restaurant in Khemis Miliana, also in western Algeria.

The group, included on a State Department list of the world's most dangerous terrorist organizations, has continued to tie up a huge Algerian security force, possibly as many as 500,000 soldiers and police officers. Little is known about the group beyond the fact that some of its leaders trained as Algerian volunteers in the Muslim guerrilla struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Western intelligence estimates have put its current strength at about 3,000 men, but even this is little more than a guess.

Adding to the general uncertainty, Algeria's politics remain extraordinarily opaque, as they have been since the army swept aside Algeria's first President, Ahmed Ben Bella, only three years after the independence war ended.

In the late 1980s, riots in Algiers and other cities forced the generals to accept a multise foreparty political system and an independent press. But much remains unknowable. The men who exercise real control remain shielded from public view, visible only when their armored cars race up the hillside to heavily protected compounds overlooking the Bay of Algiers.

Some things about the forthcoming presidential election have run ominously true to past form.

Two parties that effectively are controlled by the military oligarchy, the National Liberation Front and the closely linked National Democratic Rally, have chosen as their candidate Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a 61-year-old former foreign minister. Bouteflika's last role here was in the 1970's, under the dictatorial regime of the country's first military ruler, Houari Boumedienne.

For at least the last 16 years, until he returned to Algeria last month, Bouteflika lived in Switzerland, where he is said to have made a living acting as an adviser to Arab nations in the Persian Gulf. Editors of the independent newspapers that have sprung up in Algiers in the 1990s say they have little by which to judge Bouteflika, since he made no public comments on Algerian issues in years.

More important, since entering the election, he has made no policy statements and held no news conferences.

About the only issue he has addressed has been his health, following Algerian newspaper reports that one of his last calls before leaving Switzerland was at a hospital in Geneva. Longtime friends say that Bouteflika has suffered for at least 20 years from kidney disease. Presenting his nomination papers this week, Bouteflika was classically opaque. "Just as some people exercise their right to speak, I exercise the right to remain silent," he said.

Among the candidates arrayed against Bouteflika are several with long histories of serving as civilian ministers in military-led governments. Three of these are former prime ministers, including an engineer, Sid Ahmed Ghozali, 61, who issued the edict voiding the December 1991 elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front appeared headed for a parliamentary sweep.

The field also includes a moderate Islamic leader, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi. Ibrahimi, a 67-year-old physician who spent five years in French jails for his role in the independence struggle, was a stalwart of military-led regimes through much of the 1970's and 1980's, rising to Foreign Minister. But partly because his father was one of Algeria's leading Islamic scholars, he is expected to draw support from voters who gave their ballots in 1991 to the Islamic Salvation Front.

This alone, many Algerians believe, could make him Bouteflika's strongest challenger, assuming the generals hold to their promises of allowing a free vote.

But Ibrahimi and several other candidates remain fearful of a backlash by a hard-line military group known among Algerians as "The Eradicators," from their adoption of a military policy in the early years of the violence that sought to eliminate the Islamic guerrillas and their political leaders by whatever means necessary.

With Algerian newspapers putting every government electoral maneuver on their front pages, Zeroual went on Algerian television last month to offer personal assurances of a fair vote. This was followed by an interview in the main army magazine, El Djeich, in which the army commander, Gen. Mohammed Lamari, pledged neutrality, saying the army's only concern was to ensure the security of the 16 million voters. Any suggestion to the contrary, he said, was "pernicious and tendentious" and aimed at deceiving Algerians.

But political veterans note that the army has given similar assurances before previous elections, then proceeded to oversee rigging.

Ghozali, the former prime minister, said in an interview that attempts to sway the vote in Bouteflika's favor already had begun, by using local authorities to help gather the 400,000 signatures that backed his nomination papers, at least double the number presented by any other candidate. "Nothing has changed," he said. "The Algerian Army has always been a political institution, and it remains so now."

If the hard-liners stay their hands, said Ibrahimi, the moderate Islamic candidate, he believes he can defeat Bouteflika and steer Algeria toward a society that would be both democratic and Islamic, but without the excesses of Islamic takeovers elsewhere.

"What most Algerians want is an Islam of tolerance and moderation, not the Islam of Afghanistan," he said. "Now, after this trial of blood, with the winds of democracy blowing, we have a chance to achieve that. If we succeed, we will create a model for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world."

But skeptics see powerful reasons for the generals to see Bouteflika elected and then act through him to protect their power. That could thwart any probe of their past, although several candidates, including Ibrahimi, have suggested an amnesty for all but the worst outrages.

In an attempt to answer suggestions of government complicity, officials arranged for a reporter and photographer from The New York Times to visit the so-called "Triangle of Death," an area of newly constructed townships 15 miles east of Algiers, where nearly 500 people were killed in two separate attacks in a month in the fall of 1997.

Survivors in the poverty-ridden townships of Bentalha and Rais seemed wary of blaming either Islamic guerrillas or the government, mostly referring to "terrorists" when describing the attackers who spent hours hacking entire families to death.

A tour of the nearly deserted townships made it clear that, whatever the optimism elsewhere, the attacks destroyed faith in all political groups, including the Islamic Salvation Front, which drew overwhelming support from Bentalha and Ras in the 1991 election.

"Whether we vote for one candidate or another, it will make no difference," said Malika Aboub, a 36-year-old who clutched her son Krimo, 9, as she spoke. "All we want is peace. Anybody who can give us that will have our support."





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