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US walking a tightrope with its Yemen policy

The US is ramping up military aid to Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, in an effort to go after Al Qaeda linked militants. But too heavy a footprint, analysts warn, could prove a recruiting boon for militants.

By Staff writer / January 11, 2010

Yemen's most influential Islamic cleric Sheik Abdel-Majid al-Zindani talks during a press conference in the capital San'a, Yemen, Monday.



Sanaa, Yemen

With a curved dagger in his belt and a beard dyed flame red, Yemen’s most influential cleric on Monday laid down limits on growing counterterrorism assistance from the United States and said dialogue could solve problems with Al Qaeda militants in Yemen.

Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, who has been labeled a “global terrorist” with Al Qaeda links by Washington and was once close to Osama bin Laden while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, said Yemen would “accept any cooperation in the framework of respect and joint interests,” but would oppose military occupation.

That difference matters in Yemen, where elements of the government have often maintained expedient ties with militants of all stripes—including Sheikh Zindani, and even Al Qaeda, analysts suggest—which complicate efforts to crack down.

Zindani illustrated the dilemma when he criticized a US-backed Yemeni airstrike against a suspected Al Qaeda target in mid-December. “Many citizens were killed,” he said. “Is this right? What about a government that calls in any force to strike whoever it wants in this way, without any restrictions?”

Washington is boosting its counterterrorism cash and training for Yemen in the aftermath of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged attempt to blow up a US airliner on Christmas Day. It sees the main threat as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for the plot.

But removing Al Qaeda from Yemen will not be easy. And analysts warn that the threat of Al Qaeda’s offshoot here is being overplayed in the West, at the expense of more serious problems faced by Yemen’s weak government such as an uprising in the north that has claimed thousands of lives and a secessionist movement in the south.

Adding a dose of discrete American assistance might help, analysts say, but could also backfire if too weighted toward military action, or seen to be propping up an unpopular government.

“The American presence in this equation will cause an inevitable spike in Al Qaeda recruitment,” says Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political consultant in the capital, Sanaa. While some militants may have been killed, reports of dozens of civilian casualties were “unacceptable” to most Yemenis, he says.

“I don’t think the Americans need to get involved in any more visible way,” says Mr. al-Iryani. “The greatest risk Yemen faces today is greater foreign intervention, not Al Qaeda. It will turn large numbers of Yemenis who are not radical into Al Qaeda.”

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