A nasty spat between Algeria and Morocco over the disputed region of Western Sahara has boiled over anew, as Morocco recalled its ambassador, angry protesters tore down an Algerian flag, and a Moroccan magazine called for land grabs.

When Morocco’s King Mohammed VI meets President Barack Obama during his visit to the U.S. next week, the monarch will be looking for greater U.S. support as Morocco feuds with regional rival Algeria. The neighbours are jockeying for position in a dispute that leaves little space for the cooperation against the al-Qaeda in North Africa that Washington and its allies want.

Morocco has long made gaining international recognition for its 1975 annexation of the former Spanish territory on Africa’s Atlantic coast a top diplomatic priority. With Algeria backing the movement seeking independence, the two countries have been at loggerheads for decades.

Last month, Morocco temporarily recalled its ambassador a major escalation that one former Algerian diplomat called an attempt to gain U.S. backing for its claim to Western Sahara.

“It was surprising and disproportionate,” Abdelaziz Rahabi told The Associated Press, arguing the move was designed to dominate the scheduled visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this week that has since been postponed.

The U.S. priority in the region, however, has increasingly focussed on fighting terrorism, with the al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch morphing into a Sahara-spanning organisation with an elusive presence from the borders of Morocco to Libya. With the two most powerful militaries in the region at each other’s throats, building any kind of regional cooperation especially to support weaker states like Niger, Mauritania and Chad has been impossible.

Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for Western Sahara, but the Polisario Front, the pro-independence nationalist movement, insists that local people have the right to a referendum on the territory’s future as set out in a 1991 U.N.-brokered ceasefire agreement that ended 15 years of fighting.

Algeria has backed the Polisario’s claims and provides the group with a haven. It says it is in support of the principle of self-determination; Morocco says it is just a cynical ploy for regional domination.

Part of the problem for Morocco is that Algeria and the Polisario Front have the force of international law on their side. It also has to deal with the fact that the Security Council is increasingly considering the issue of human rights. In April, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, attempted to add human rights monitoring to the U.N. mission there, provoking protests from Morocco. The proposal was dropped but bruised relations between the two countries.

— AP