Tensions showing as US increases its role in Yemen
Officials angry over suggestion security is weak
SANA, Yemen - Yemen insisted yesterday that it is capable of leading the fight against Al Qaeda, revealing friction with the United States in their growing alliance against the terror group.
The Yemen government sent thousands of troops this week to remote provinces where Al Qaeda has set up strongholds, and it has carried out a series of US-backed strikes against militant hide-outs in the past month. Yemeni officials have been angered by suggestions the state is too weakened to handle the fight.
The closure of the US Embassy in the capital this week became a case in point, rankling some officials who said it gave the appearance that Yemeni security forces could not protect the facilities.
Yesterday, as the embassy reopened, the Interior Ministry insisted the fight against Al Qaeda was under control, saying Yemeni forces “have imposed a security cordon around Al Qaeda elements everywhere they are present and . . . are observing and pursuing them around the clock.’’
More broadly, the intensified partnership with the United States presents dilemmas for Yemen.
The government is concerned that too public an American role in the antiterror campaign could embarrass the government, presenting it as weak before a Yemeni public where mistrust of the United States runs high. It also could bring a backlash from Islamic conservatives who are a major pillar of support for President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Moreover, Yemeni officials appear worried American aid will come with pressure on Saleh to reform his rule in this unstable, divided nation.
The government is sensitive over any hint of meddling in its internal affairs. But at the same time, it is being battered by multiple crises and needs assistance.
It has little control outside the capital, and heavily armed tribes hold sway over large parts of the mountainous, impoverished nation. Many tribes are disgruntled with Saleh, and some have allowed Al Qaeda fighters to take refuge. On other fronts, it is battling Shi’ite rebels in the north and a revived separatist campaign in the once-independent south.
The US Embassy reopened its doors following a two-day closure because of what Washington called an imminent threat of Al Qaeda attack. The British Embassy, which had also closed, resumed operations, though consular and visa services remained closed. Other Western embassies maintained heightened security, including the French and Czech, which closed to the public, and the Spanish and German, which were restricting visitors.
The US Embassy said it reopened after Yemeni actions the day before addressed the threats - an apparent reference to clashes Monday northeast of the capital in which two Al Qaeda fighters were killed.
Still, several Yemeni security and government officials privately expressed anger over the closures. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of US-Yemeni ties.
The Interior Ministry suggested the closings were unnecessary, insisting “security is good in the capital and the provinces, and there is no fear for the lives of any foreigner or foreign embassy.’’ It said Yemeni forces had captured five militants in recent days in the capital and the western region of Hodeida.
Earlier this week, security officials said thousands of troops had been sent to three provinces - Marib, Jouf, and Abyan - where Al Qaeda is believed to have its strongest presence. There have been no reports of fighting or other operations after the deployment. It appeared to be aimed at beefing up the military’s strength in the region, where the government has almost no authority.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday praised Yemeni action but warned that Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen has become a global threat. The group is being blamed for planning the Christmas attempt to bomb a US passenger jet.
President Obama has sharply increased aid to beef up Yemen’s counterterrorism forces and promised a deepening partnership with San’a.
Yemen has welcomed the American help, but the partnership could prove problematic as the two countries try to establish who is in control.
President Saleh’s son Ahmad - who many believe is being groomed to succeed his father - heads the nation’s counter-terrorism force, and the government would probably resist any US attempt to bypass him in the fight.
Security officials privately expressed concern the United States and Britain will seek to create a new counterterrorism unit. Yemeni officials say American help should be focused on funding and training the existing forces and exchanges of intelligence.