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

By Sudarsan Raghavan and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; 12:30 PM

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. Despite Anisi's assurances, the U.S., British and other embassies shut down or restricted public access Sunday and Monday, citing threats of terrorist attacks.

The U.S. Embassy reopened Tuesday after Yemeni security forces conducted what it called "successful counterterrorism operations" north of the capital Monday that "addressed a specific area of concern." The embassy's statement referred to a reported Yemeni attack on militants of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the mountainous Arhab area. Two militants were killed in the fighting, two others were wounded, and other members of the group, including its leader, were forced to flee, the Interior Ministry reported.

The U.S. Embassy commended Yemen for its efforts against AQAP while noting that "the threat of terrorist attacks against American interests remains high." Other Western embassies, including those of Britain and France, resumed operations Tuesday but remained closed to the public, news agencies reported.

In a sign of continuing friction over the al-Qaeda threat, the Interior Ministry suggested Tuesday that the embassies had overreacted. "Security precautions for embassies are at a high standard," Saba quoted a ministry official as saying. "The Ministry of Interior emphasizes that all embassies, diplomatic missions and foreign companies are fully secured and there is nothing to be worried about. . . . There is no fear for the life of any foreigner or any foreign embassy in the country."

The ministry also said security forces "have apprehended five terror elements" in the capital and the provinces of Sanaa and Hudeidah. No other details were immediately provided. Reuters news agency quoted a security source as saying Yemen has launched a major offensive against al-Qaeda, sending thousands of troops to the provinces of Shabwa, Maarib and Abyan and continuing the campaign in the capital.

In Washington, the Yemeni Embassy welcomed the State Department's decision to reopen its Sanaa mission after Yemen's "successful preemptive operation" against al-Qaeda. In a statement Tuesday, it said the Yemeni government "takes threats on foreign chanceries seriously" and noted that eight security personnel were killed in a suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in September 2008. "Not a single American diplomat was harmed by the attack," the statement said, adding that Yemen has "adopted cautious security measures to ensure the safety of foreigners in the country."

While playing down the U.S. role in Yemen 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.

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