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Yemen's alliance with radical Sunnis in internal war poses complication for U.S.
The Salafists view themselves as the protectors of Yemen's Islamic identity, and their loyalty to Saleh runs deep because they view him as able to keep Yemen unified under sharia, or Islamic law, without Western interference.
In the north, the Shiite rebels, known as Hawthis, rose up six years ago to push back the government-sanctioned influence of hard-line Salafis, who viewed the Shiites as heretics.
Yemen's tolerance for extremists persisted even after al-Qaeda militants bombed the USS Cole in the southern city of Aden in 2000, killing 17 American sailors. U.S. officials say Saleh started to take al-Qaeda seriously only after they convinced him that the group posed a threat to his ability to stay in power. Yemeni officials say the United States and its Western partners provided far too little assistance to tackle al-Qaeda.
Ties that trouble
Abdul-Ghani al-Iriyani, a political analyst who is the nephew of the former prime minister, said Saleh "miscalculated the result of this association with Salafis and ex-jihadists, which is now coming to haunt him."
"He has squandered his credibility with the international community, especially after having maintained this relationship after the USS Cole," he said.
Today, Muhsin is emerging as Saleh's most significant rival. Muhsin has strongly signaled that he does not favor the succession of Saleh's son Ahmed to the presidency, according to Saleh's political advisers and Western diplomats.
Muhsin is "building up his ambitions. If he becomes president, it will be a bad sign," said a senior Yemeni official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "Muhsin sides more with the religious extremists, not necessarily al-Qaeda, but with extremists like" Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, whom the United States has classified as bin Laden's spiritual mentor and a terrorist.
Zindani and Salafi clerics he leads have warned that U.S. intervention in Yemen could lead to "foreign occupation" and that they would order jihad against America. In the wake of such rhetoric, Saleh announced that he was open to entering "a dialogue" with al-Qaeda militants, raising concerns among U.S. officials.
It's not the first time this has happened. In 2003, the government adopted a strategy to rehabilitate suspected militants in a prison-based program. It led to the release of high-profile extremists involved in the Cole bombing. Judge Hamoud al-Hitar, a Salafist, ran the program. Today, he is Yemen's minister for religious endowments. Last year, he and Zindani led a rally of hundreds of Salafists to declare opposition to the secessionist movement in the south.
Fadhli also haunts the government. Last year, he broke with Saleh and joined a movement of southerners seeking redress for grievances against the regime, which is led by northerners. Many are seeking outright secession. Fadhli's arrival has injected energy into the movement: Anti-government rallies have grown larger and more unruly in recent months.
Saleh's Salafist ties, many Yemeni officials and analysts say, force the Obama administration to walk a tightrope as it deepens its partnership with Yemen. If the United States treads too lightly, there might be a temptation for the Yemeni government to backtrack on its efforts to combat al-Qaeda.
"If they push too far, the backlash is going to be massive," said Abdul-Ghani al-Iriyani, the analyst. "Then people like the extremists in the army, extremists in the society will capitalize on that and derail the whole campaign."