Comically candid and light on his feet, Abdel-Karim Iryani knows instinctively what a Washington audience wants to hear. The ageless former Yemeni prime minister and foreign minister, now serving as a senior adviser to President Ali Abdallah Salih, insists that Yemenis are fed up with terrorists in their midst. In an interview Monday and in other public remarks here, he made it clear that Yemen was cooperating wholeheartedly with the United States in its war against terror, with no hesitation or fear of backlash.
Last September, a joint operations room was set up by top U.S. and Yemeni security officials to combat terrorism, Iryani said in an interview. "Even the Saudis are brought in and connected to it sometimes," he added. Asked repeatedly whether there would be a strong domestic reaction to attacks launched to capture or kill terrorists on Yemeni soil, his answer was an unequivocal "no." The opposition would complain about Yemeni sovereignty being compromised, he said. But if it had nothing to protest, it would not qualify as opposition, he quipped.
Asked on Fox television Saturday whether Yemen would allow a repeat of the Nov. 3 missile attack from a CIA-operated, unmanned Predator aircraft against a vehicle carrying a top al Qaeda leader, Iryani's answer was "sure." Sinan al Harithi, also known as Abu Ali al Harithi, a senior leader of the group suspected of planning the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, was killed in the strike, with four others. "We still have at least two more at large," Iryani said after a dinner at the residence of Yemeni Ambassador H.E. Abdulwahab Abdulla Al-Hajjri.
Iryani disclosed that Yemeni authorities, using informers from the country's far-flung tribes, are tracking other such wanted "Yemeni-Afghans." But each time that convoys of jeeps were "ready to fetch them, the men we were hoping to catch would be gone by the time we got there. The same informants probably tipped them off about our planned chase. They cash in on both sides of the street," Iryani explained. "So we needed more sophisticated assistance to trace and get them before they got away."
Where realpolitik begins and ends in this seasoned statesman's mind is anybody's guess, but nine days after the Sept.11 attacks last year in New York and at the Pentagon, Iryani was in the U.S. capital to try to dispel any notion of an Afghanistan scenario being mounted against Yemen. He had meetings at the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department.
"I came at the instruction of the president to say we are ready to cooperate. We did it because we felt we were targeted. Everyone was saying it was going to be Yemen after Afghanistan," he said. "In Yemen we will never regret that we cooperated with the U.S.," he declared, because Yemen has been hit by terror repeatedly. "Nothing happened after the Predator attack. Why? Because Yemen has suffered from these guys. The public is convinced that these people cannot be let loose."
The 1999 execution of Abol Hassan Almihdhar, a Yemeni, for kidnapping foreign tourists provoked no reaction, he recalled, noting that Almihdhar was a relative of a Sept. 11 hijacker, Khalid Almihdhar, and that they came from the same village in Hadramout, in the south of the country. There also have been several kidnappings of Westerners, the strike against the Cole and an attack last month on a French tanker along Yemen's southern coast.
"It has created the worst environmental disaster in Yemen and perhaps in the Arabian Sea," Iryani said of the tanker attack. "Two thousand fishermen were deprived of their livelihood; that is a minimum of 10,000 people deprived of their daily bread because a crazy man was aiming at a symbol of the Western world. Who is suffering from this action? It is only poor Yemeni fishermen families. This is why I am standing here defending the Yemeni-U.S. fight against terror."
"People like Osama bin Laden say they are fighting non-Muslims, but the falling heads are Muslim," he pointed out. Asked how he would interpret bin Laden's latest audiotaped message threatening more devastating attacks if the United States and its allies embarked on a war against Iraq, Iryani shrugged. "In my view, the man will do whatever he manages to do, with or without a war against Iraq." He dismissed reports that bin Laden was hiding somewhere in Yemen.
Honor for Imprisoned Syrian Academic
The Middle East Studies Association of North America has honored imprisoned Syrian economics professor Aref Dalila with its Academic Freedom Award for 2002. Dalila, 59, is a founding member of the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society. He was arrested in September 2001, and last July a state security court sentenced him to 10 years in prison for his political activities. Dalila was dismissed from his position at the University of Damascus in 1998 after he ran as an independent in parliamentary elections and campaigned against corruption.