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Yemeni officials, fearing backlash, play down partnership with U.S.

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; A08

SANAA, YEMEN -- As the United States ramps up its counterterrorism role here, senior Yemeni officials are publicly playing down the partnership, fearing that the government could pay a heavy political price for aligning with the United States and appearing too weak to control al-Qaeda on its own.

The head of Yemen's national security agency declared over the weekend that the threat posed by al-Qaeda had been exaggerated and that Yemen is not a haven for militants, the state news agency Saba reported. The comments by Ali Muhammad al-Anisi came a day after Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, promised increased U.S. support for Yemen on a visit here. Since Anisi's statement, al-Qaeda threats have forced the U.S., British, German, French and Japanese embassies to close.

While playing down the U.S. role seems designed to prevent a domestic backlash, it also raises questions about the government's long-term commitment and will to fight al-Qaeda in the wake of the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, analysts say. Yemen's fragile government is in a delicate balancing act between its allegiance to the United States and tribal, political and religious forces that resent U.S. interference in Yemen and sympathize with al-Qaeda's ideology.

"The government has to care for its own survival, and its survival depends on powerful tribal and social groups," said Abdullah al-Faqih, a political science professor at Sanaa University. "And some of these groups have strong connections to al-Qaeda."

In parliament, opposition politicians are warning that many Yemenis will support al-Qaeda if the conflict escalates. Tribal leaders and lawmakers in the south are furious about what they say was a U.S.-sponsored airstrike on civilians two weeks ago. Yemen's government says the strike targeted militants and their relatives.

The government is preoccupied with a civil war in the north and a southern separatist movement. An inability to reduce high levels of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy is deepening the collective frustration.

Senior Yemeni officials said in interviews that their partnership with the United States is strong. Yet they are wary of the U.S. focus on counterterrorism without addressing Yemen's social and economic woes.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi warned that the United States "should learn from its experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan and not repeat the mistakes in Yemen, both in dealing with the government of Yemen and confronting al-Qaeda." The United States and other Western powers, he said, need to provide long-term economic development to reduce poverty and raise educational standards, which he said can help combat terrorism "in a more effective fashion than just using military force."

"We feel there is a need for the United States to better understand the interactions of Yemeni society, from a sociological, religious, tribal and political standpoint," Qirbi said.

Problematic leader

Part of Yemen's problem is President Ali Abdullah Saleh, critics and analysts say. He has held on to power for 31 years, heading a government beset by corruption and dominated by members of his family and tribe. Saleh has denied allegations that he rigged elections.

The civil war in the north, between the government and Shiite rebels, is seen by some analysts as a way for Saleh to exert military authority at a time when he is facing multiple challenges to his rule and to his ambition of having his son succeed him one day.

Today, that succession is far from preordained. Some senior military commanders and officials are against such a transfer of power, analysts say. And Yemen's opposition -- a mix of Islamist, socialist and secular parties -- is taking advantage of the chaos. The opposition is increasingly vocal in its criticism of Saleh, although the parties are far from united. They manage newspapers and Web sites, and they have staged large anti-government rallies, especially in the south, where there are long-standing grievances against the northerners who rule the country.

Over the past two weeks, opposition politicians have spoken out against alleged civilian casualties in a Dec. 17 U.S.-backed airstrike. Government officials were so alarmed that they began to publicly brand the opposition as al-Qaeda sympathizers.

After al-Qaeda militants bombed the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 American sailors, Yemen and the United States worked closely to combat terrorism. But by 2003, the United States was focused on Iraq, and U.S. counterterrorism officials say the Yemeni government became less eager to tackle al-Qaeda, fearing that it would alienate powerful tribes that provided support and protection to al-Qaeda figures. Meanwhile, part of Yemen's security forces was thought to be infiltrated by al-Qaeda sympathizers. The relationship with the United States was further eroded by Yemen's refusal to extradite suspects involved in the Cole bombing.

"The trust between the U.S. and Yemen comes and goes," said Abdel-Karim al-Iryani, a former prime minister who serves as a political adviser to Saleh. "Everyone has his own calculations on what they want from this relationship."

Demonstration of control

The government is now determined to show it is in full control. In an interview with Alsyasiah, a government daily, Qirbi said the U.S.-Yemen relationship calls for U.S. security assistance only in "intelligence and information coordination." He added: "Yemen has its own short-term and long-term schemes to tackle terrorists."

On Monday, Yemeni forces fought armed members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as they were moving through the mountainous Arhab area north of Sanaa, the capital, the Interior Ministry said. The group of militants was led by Mohamed Ahmed al-Haniq, but he and an unspecified number of fighters escaped during the clash, the ministry said. Two other militants were killed, and two were injured.

Also on Monday, the government published through Saba an accounting of its Dec. 17 operation against suspected al-Qaeda operatives. It described the strikes as "a battle that demonstrated the strength and ability of the security forces to protect the homeland's gains and preserve its security and stability." The government said it killed at least 34 suspected militants and arrested 21 in three areas of the country.

In the report, the government said militants had carried out 65 attacks since 1992. The government, said Anisi, the national security chief, had thwarted 60 percent of them. But hardly anyone expects al-Qaeda to be defeated unless Yemen's political and economic problems are solved.

"It's impossible for the government to wage a war in the north and an insurrection in the south and to fight against al-Qaeda at the same time," said Faqih, the political science professor. "You need Superman to do this."

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