By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 10:36 PM
SANAA, YEMEN - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's surprise visit to Yemen on Tuesday was both a show of support and a warning for a country that was the point of origin for two narrowly averted terrorist plots against Americans in less than a year.
The arrival of Clinton - the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Yemen in two decades - provided a symbolic boost to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has emerged as a critical, if unpredictable, ally in the fight against al-Qaeda. But Clinton also used the visit to prod Yemeni leaders to speed up economic and political reforms to relieve social problems that she said helped create conditions that breed terrorism.
"The challenges Yemen faces extend far beyond terrorism," Clinton told a group of about 200 Yemeni officials, businessmen and students in a "town hall" meeting in the capital of Sanaa.
The unannounced visit - kept under wraps for security reasons - included three hours of talks with Saleh as well as separate meetings with opposition leaders and a motorcade jaunt through the narrow alleys of Sanaa's old city. At every stop, Clinton sounded familiar themes: Yemen is a critical partner, but its leaders need to do more to prevent the country's multiple crises from spiraling out of control.
"We face a common threat that began with al-Qaeda, but our partnership goes beyond terrorism," Clinton said as she stood side by side with an expressionless Saleh after their talks inside the president's Republican Palace.
Less than half of the three-hour discussion was devoted to Yemen's counterterrorism effort, according to a senior U.S. official who witnessed the exchange. After three years of prodding - and visits by a parade of U.S. security and intelligence chiefs in recent years - Obama administration officials have applauded improvements in Yemeni cooperation in tracking down and targeting members of al-Qaeda's Yemeni subsidiary, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
Saleh, in his comments to Clinton, mounted a vigorous defense of his government's recent efforts and cited specific progress, gains that the U.S. official afterward characterized as "encouraging."
Saleh chose not to speak during the public remarks before TV cameras, but in private he thanked Clinton repeatedly for the visit, which he called "historic," said the U.S. official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the discussions. Yemeni officials have criticized the United States in the past for imposing demands on the impoverished country while being slow to provide promised military and economic assistance.
U.S. relations with Yemen have frequently been stormy in recent years, even as the two countries have tried to coordinate their fight against terrorist groups. The al-Qaeda offshoot AQAP has targeted not only Yemeni officials and troops but also international air carriers, and is believed to have been behind recent attempts to bomb cargo flights using explosives concealed inside toner cartridges for printers. The group also claimed responsibility for a Nigerian man's failed attempt on Christmas Day in 2009 to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit with a bomb concealed in his underwear.
U.S. officials have sought to play down the problems with Saleh's government, but relations deteriorated sharply following the recent WikiLeaks disclosures. Among the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables were several documents that revealed sensitive details of U.S. cooperation with Yemen in counterterrorism, showing that Saleh had secretly permitted U.S. airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets while publicly claiming that the missiles were launched by Yemen's armed forces.
In response to the perceived terrorist threat from Yemen, the Obama administration has drastically increased security assistance to the country and has received government backing for missile strikes on known al-Qaeda bases. But the administration has also approved much large increases in non-military aid - from $16 million in 2008 to more than $130 million last year - to education and development projects.
Clinton said Washington had "rebalanced" its spending priorities to help create a "unified, stable, democratic and prosperous Yemen where civil society has room to operate but al-Qaeda does not."
Clinton pressed Saleh to ensure fair representation of opposition groups during planned parliamentary elections. And she pointedly met with several groups of opposition figures and parliamentary leaders in the U.S. Embassy and a Sanaa hotel.
Afterward, she presided over what was at times a boisterous exchange during the town hall in a hotel auditorium. The audience gave Clinton a raucous reception, but then proceeded to question her pointedly about unpopular U.S. policies ranging from sharp restrictions on scholarships for Yemenis to the open-ended detention of nearly 90 Yemenis at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Clinton won applause when she promised to continue pressing the Yemeni government to speed up economic and political reforms. And she told the gathering that the Sanaa government must "meet the responsibility that all governments have to deliver services and results to their people."
Yemen, by far the poorest country in the Arab world, is facing rapid depletion of its modest oil and gas reserves. Its population of 23 million - which is expected to double in 30 years - lacks infrastructure for roads and electricity and faces a looming water shortage in coming decades. Clinton has sought to highlight the country's development woes, and she told the town hall gathering that Yemen's "economic development and security are deeply connected."