The population is divided between white Moors (who hold the power), black Moors (Islamics are that have long since lost their identity as black Africans and are often descendants of former slaves) and black Africans, at the bottom of the social strata. While the situation is a potential tinderbox, the recent fighting was between different factions of white Moors.
So why the coup? Mauritania is one of only three Arab nations to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. Despite their past history with France, relations with Israel and even the United States improved significantly following the Iraq war. The government of Mauritania broke off ties with Iraq, and cracked down on white Moor Islamic extremists who sympathized with Saddam Hussein during the U.S.-led operation to oust him from Baghdad. The country has a significant radical minority, to the point that one of Al Qaeda leaders, Abu Hafs, is known as 'the Mauritanian', and they knew their time was running out.
An Ivory Coast newspaper even speculated that the French were the real puppet masters behind the coup attempt, since Taya was leaning too far towards America and Israel. Then again, pro-government newspapers in the Ivory Coast should be taken with a grain of sale, since they already have an ax to grind with the French.
Meanwhile, there's an offshore incentive for future intrigue in Mauritania. The Australian firm Woodside Petroleum plans to go ahead with the Chinguetti oil project, a 50,000-75,000 barrel a day operation scheduled to start production in 2006. In October 2002, a production test of an offshore well flowed brought up a respectable 1,560 barrels of oil and 650 million cubic feet of gas per day. - Adam Geibel
One of the problems still plaguing Mauritania is that a substantial percentage of the population is kept under conditions of forced labor reminiscent of slavery (despite the legal abolition of slavery in that country in 1981). Amnesty International estimated that approximately 300,000 freed slaves continue to serve their former masters because of ongoing dependency. At least this is an improvement since 1994, when Amnesty reported that about 90,000 Black Africans were kept as "property" in Mauritania.