SANAA, YEMEN, NOV. 22 -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III encountered a sharp rebuff today from the leader of this key Arab country, who said the deployment of American and other foreign forces in the region is hampering Arab diplomatic efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the Persian Gulf crisis.
Baker flew here from Saudi Arabia to pursue his campaign to win support from members of the U.N. Security Council for a new resolution calling for the use of force if necessary to reverse Iraq's takeover of Kuwait.
Yemen, on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula, is currently the only Arab country on the 15-member body and will assume its rotating presidency at the end of this month, when the United States turns over the chair. The Bush administration is seeking approval of a new resolution before Yemen takes the chair, a position from which it could delay consideration of a resolution through parliamentary maneuvers.
President Ali Abdallah Salih, who hosted Baker for lunch at the presidential palace and held three hours of talks with him about the crisis, later gave a blunt warning in front of reporters that "there would be no winners" if war were launched and that every nation involved in the conflict would suffer greatly.
"We do not support the presence of foreign forces in the region," Salih said as Baker stood beside him, looking uncomfortable. "We think there can be an Arab diplomatic solution but unfortunately these foreign forces are complicating the problem rather than solving it."
Conceding "some differences" in his discussions with Salih about how to reach a peaceful and politically acceptable outcome, Baker declared "there is no war as we stand here today, nor has any decision been taken that there will be war." He emphasized "our firm and strongly held view that as soon as this crisis is over we want our troops home. We do not seek nor do we desire any permanent presence" in the region.
Nonetheless, Baker argued that "if the United Nations is to mean anything" it must find ways to impose its will and resolutions "if only to protect small countries around the world. And that is why the United States is where it is."
In the case of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Baker flatly declared that "a brutal dictator" who twice invaded neighboring countries, used chemical gas on his own people and was determined to acquire nuclear weapons "must be stopped."
Yemen is a long-divided country whose northern and southern parts merged this year into one state with a combined population of about 11 million -- more than half the Arabs in the Arabian peninsula. It has become an important player in the gulf crisis because of its forthcoming leadership of the Security Council and its role as a trusted interlocutor for Iraq. Yemen was the only Arab country to send troops to fight for Iraq during its war with Iran.
The good relationship between Baghdad and Sanaa has endured even though Yemen has generally respected the U.N. embargo against Iraq and approved some resolutions condemning the invasion of Kuwait and the seizure of hostages.
But on other United Nations resolutions critical of Saddam's regime, Yemen has abstained from voting. Yemen is thought likely to abstain if it does not vote against any U.N. resolution approving force against Iraq, although Salih refused today to pronounce how his country would vote until the final text is ready.
The U.S. desire to pass a resolution before losing the Security Council chairmanship to Yemen is intensified by Yemen's ties with Iraq and other positions. Yemen maintains a turbulent relationship with neighboring Saudi Arabia and sympathizes with Saddam Hussein's call for impoverished Arab populations to demand a greater share in the oil wealth of Arab sheikdoms.
Technically, the United States needs nine votes from among the 15 council members and the support or abstention of the four other permanent members -- Britain, China, France and the Soviet Union -- to pass the resolution. But the Bush administration has made a point of working for as lopsided a vote as possible to underscore Iraq's political isolation.
Yemen's professed policy of strict nonalignment in the gulf crisis has irked the Saudis, who two months ago suspended residency privileges for more than 2 million Yemeni migrant workers. The new visa requirements prompted an exodus homeward of more than 800,000 people, according to immigration authorities here.
But this week, the Saudis appealed for an end to a "propaganda war" with the Yemenis, apparently in an effort to heal relations in advance of Yemen's turn next month in the Security Council presidency.
In advance of its new responsibilities, Yemen appears to be intensifying diplomatic efforts to find an Arab solution to the crisis. Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was expected here tonight to be briefed by Salih on the Baker visit. He was flying from Oman, a staunch ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia but also the first Arab country in the gulf to receive a high-ranking Iraqi official since the crisis erupted.
Baker's visit seemed to reflect U.S. recognition of a need to court the Yemenis as they assume a more prominent role in the crisis.