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The Rif War

Origins of The Rif War

During the early 20th century, Morocco had fallen into the French and Spanish spheres of influence, becoming divided into protectorates ruled by the two European nations. The Rif region had been assigned to Spain, but given that even the Sultans of Morocco had been unable to exert control over the region, Spanish sovereignty over the Rif was strictly theoretical. For centuries, the Berber tribes of the Rif had fought off any attempt to impose outside control on them. Though nominally Muslim, the tribes of the Rif had continued many pagan practices such as worshipping water spirits and forest spirits that were contrary to Islam. Attempts by the Moroccan sultans to impose orthodox Islam on the Rif had been successfully resisted by the tribesmen.

For centuries Europeans had seen the Rif mountains and the outlines of people on the mountains from ships in the Mediterranean Sea, but almost no European had ever ventured into the mountains. Walter Burton Harris, the Morocco correspondent for The Times, who covered the war wrote that as late as 1912 only "one or two Europeans had been able to visit the cedar forests that lie south of Fez. A few had traveled in the southern Atlas and pushed on into the Sus...and that was almost all". The reason for, as Harris wrote, was the Berbers "were often as inhospitable to the Arab as they were to the foreigner", and generally killed any outsiders who ventured into their territory.

Vincent Sheean, who covered the war for The New York Times, wrote that the Rif was a truly beautiful countryside of "Crimson mountains flung against a sky of hieratic blue, gorges magnificent and terrifying, peaceful green valleys between protecting precipices", a place that reminded him of his native Colorado. The Rif was also rich in high-grade iron, which could be easily extracted via open pit mining. The Spanish state could collect much money in the form of taxes and royalties from the iron mining, which made the Spanish state anxious to bring the Rif under its control. The concession to mine iron in the Rif had been granted to the millionaire Don Horacio Echevarrieta who by 1920 had brought out 800, 000 tons of high grade iron which as it had been extracted via open pit mining was cheaply attained and fetched the highest prices. The iron mining caused much environmental damage and required the displacement of the Riffans, who of course received no share of the profits, and thus understandably were opposed to the iron mines being developed on their land. When King Alfonso XIII of Spain ascended to the throne in 1886, Spain could at least make the pretense of being a world power, having colonies in the Americans, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and in 1899 sold the Mariana and Caroline islands to Germany, leaving Spain only with some footholds on the Moroccan coast and Spanish Guinea. To compensate for the lost empire in the Americas and Asia, there emerged a powerful africanista faction in Spain led by Alfonso, who wanted a new empire in Africa. Finally, the Roman Catholic Church was politically powerful in Spain, and much of the Spanish clergy preached the need for new crusade to continue the Reconquista by conquering Morocco, thus adding their voices to the africanista choir. For all these reasons, Spain had been pushing into the Rif since 1909.