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President Obama executive order gives Treasury authority to freeze Yemeni assets in U.S.

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President Obama issued an executive order Wednesday giving the Treasury Department authority to freeze the U.S.-based assets of anyone who “obstructs” implementation of the administration-backed political transition in Yemen.

The unusual order, which administration officials said also targets U.S. citizens who engage in activity deemed to threaten Yemen’s security or political stability, is the first issued for Yemen that does not directly relate to counterterrorism.

Unlike similar measures authorizing terrorist designations and sanctions, the new order does not include a list of names or organizations already determined to be in violation. Instead, one official said, it is designed as a “deterrent” to “make clear to those who are even thinking of spoiling the transition” to think again.

The official was authorized to discuss the new order on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. involvement in Yemen has increased rapidly in recent years with the rise of the al-Qaeda affiliate there. U.S. airstrikes, including with drone missiles, have increased sharply this year against alleged al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants who have expanded their control of territory in the southern part of the country.

With new revelations about the intent and ability of AQAP to strike U.S. territory — including a second attempt, disrupted this month, to down a U.S.-bound airliner with a sophisticated “underwear bomb” — the administration is seeking to ensure that political turmoil in Yemen does not undermine its counterterrorism goals and smooth cooperation with the government.

U.S. training and other military assistance to Yemen, which totaled $176 million in 2010, dropped to $30 million last year after then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh authorized armed action against anti-government political demonstrators. He later agreed to resign but then reneged.

The aid resumed after Saleh stepped down in February, after 33 years in power, and his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, took over the presidency and began to implement a political transition to a democratically elected government.

The administration budget request for this fiscal year totals $79 million in civilian economic assistance and $70 million for the Yemeni military. Humanitarian aid, which was never suspended, has reached $73 million this fiscal year.

Despite Saleh’s departure, however, a number of his relatives and supporters in positions of military and political power delayed relinquishing their offices until a Hadi-issued decree last month. Obama’s new executive order, which threatens any assets they or anyone associated with them may have in this country, is designed to ensure that they remain sidelined.

“Hadi showed considerable backbone, and we believe he’s up to the task of implementing the transition agreement signed in November,” the administration official said. The agreement includes “a lot of ambitious benchmarks the government has committed to meet.”

While “the transition has been proceeding more or less on track,” the official said, the executive order is “just one more way of us trying to ensure that trend continues.”

The order provides criteria to take action against people who the Treasury secretary, in consultation with the secretary of state, determines have “engaged in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen, such as acts that obstruct the implementation of the Nov. 23, 2011, agreement between the Government of Yemen and those in opposition to it, which provides for a peaceful transition of power . . . or that obstruct the political process in Yemen.”

It covers those who “have materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support” for the acts described or any person whose property has already been blocked, as well as those who have acted on behalf of such people.

Obama administration officials compared the order to one the president issued in 2009 against anyone threatening the agreement that installed a transitional government in Somalia.

In 2006, President George W. Bush issued a similar order regarding Ivory Coast in West Africa.

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