|Country profile: Mauritania|
In the Middle Ages Mauritania was the cradle of the Almoravid movement, which spread Islam throughout the region and for a while controlled the Islamic part of Spain.
European traders began to show interest in Mauritania in the 15th century. France gained control of the coastal region in 1817, and in 1904 a formal French protectorate was extended over the territory.
Morocco opposed the country's independence in 1960 and for a time tried to absorb it. But Morocco's King Hassan II later improved ties as part of his plan to divide Western Sahara.
The eventual deal in 1976 brought more problems, though, with Mauritania coming under attack by Polisario Front guerrillas, who opposed Moroccan control of Western Sahara, and the subsequent downfall of the leader since independence - Moktar Ould Daddah - in a military coup.
Peace was agreed with the Polisario in 1979, but this in turn worsened relations with Morocco, until a detente in 1985. More recently, ties with Senegal have been strained over the use of the Senegal River, which forms the border between the two countries.
Mauritania officially banned slavery in 1981. The government has denied accusations that it is still being practised.
One of the world's poorest countries, Mauritania has pinned hopes for future prosperity on the exploitation of its offshore reserves of oil and natural gas. The Chinguetti and Tiof fields are expected to yield millions of barrels of oil.
The country forged diplomatic ties with Israel in 1999, one of three Arab nations to have done so. Under former President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, Mauritania was an ally of the US in its "war on terror". American special forces were despatched to train Mauritanian troops.
President of the Higher State Council: Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz
General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz declared himself president of the Higher State Council on 6 August 2008 after ousting President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in a military coup.
He served President Abdallahi as chief of the presidential staff until the latter tried to dismiss him in August amid reports of a political rift between the two men. Gen Abdelaziz asked government ministers to remain at their posts in the transition to promised presidential elections.
Ousted president: Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi
Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi won run-off elections in March 2007 to become Mauritania's first democratically elected president since the country gained independence from France in 1960.
The elections were the final stage of a democratic handover to civilian rule by a military junta which took power in a 2005 coup.
The polls were given a clean bill of health by the European Union and US observers. Mauritania has experienced 10 coups or attempted coups since independence. Previous elections were widely viewed as rigged.
Mr Abdallahi was minister of finance in one previous administration and minister of fishing under Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, who was ousted in 2005.
Observers suggested that among his challenges as president would be to ensure that the military keep out of politics.The danger posed by the army to the president became clear in August 2008, coup leader General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz took control in a coup and declared Mr Abdallahi deposed. The president is currently being held by forces loyal to the coup leaders.
Although Mauritania's TV and radio stations are state-owned, privately-owned publications are permitted.
Reporters Without Borders, in its review of 2007, said press freedom was "alive and well", and "much better" than under the Taya regime.
In the same year, rights body Freedom House described the Mauritanian press as being "partly free" and noted that a June 2006 law had eliminated the need for newspapers to seek pre-publication approval from officials.
However, journals may be banned for publishing material that "undermines" Islam or is perceived to threaten national security.
The BBC is available on FM in the capital (106.9) and in the second city, Nouadhibou (102.4). Radio France Internationale is also relayed.