The US makes a mess

The US makes a mess

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,22 November, 2002

LARGELY unnoticed while the world's attention is turned towards Iraq, the United States is sliding into a small but possibly long and messy war in Yemen.

On the night of November 2-3, an unmanned Predator drone belonging to the CIA fired a rocket at a car in Marib province, killing Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, a leading al-Qaeda suspect who had been on the run for more than a year.

Five others, all said to have al-Qaeda connections, died with him.

So far as can be ascertained, this was America's first action under the assassination policy borrowed from Israel and approved by President Bush in the wake of September 11.

Less dramatically, more US action has followed. Last weekend [NOV 17], an Associated Press correspondent in Sana'a reported that American fighter planes were patrolling the skies over Marib and al-Jawf provinces close to the Saudi border and that Americans had been seen on the ground working with Yemeni special forces.

These operations (as they are currently described) are intended to "tighten the grip" on al-Qaeda suspects who are believed to be relocating in "tribal strongholds", a security official told the news agency.

Yemen has long been earmarked by the Washington hawks - and possibly by al-Qaeda too - as the next battleground in the "war on terrorism", and now their wish is being granted.

Viewed from Washington, the rationale for direct intervention is simple: Yemen has been given the names of suspects, and plenty of time to round them up, but has largely failed to do so.

Some maintain this is because of help that the Sana'a government received from Bin Laden sympathisers and other Islamists during its war with the southern socialists in 1994.

Whatever the degree of truth in that, there are certainly more important factors - especially the government's limited capabilities when it comes to dealing with the tribes who shelter suspects.

Last December, under American pressure, Yemeni forces tried to arrest Harithi and another man in the lawless Marib province. A disastrous battle ensued, leaving at least 18 soldiers and four tribesmen dead, but the suspects escaped.

President Ali Abdullah Salih has survived in power for 24 years by avoiding head-on confrontations with the tribes whenever possible. The Americans have no such qualms and are dragging him along with them.

The Yemeni government has little choice but to let it happen. Despite the dubious legality of assassinating al-Harithi and the apparent infringement of Yemen's sovereignty, there has been no official protest from Sana'a. More recent US operations in the north were reportedly given cabinet approval.

An intriguing role in all this is played by Edmund Hull, the US ambassador, whose swashbuckling manner has annoyed Yemeni officials ever since he arrived.

Shortly before the Predator strike, according to a detailed report in the Christian Science Monitor, Mr Hull personally went out into the Yemeni countryside with a team of officials and bribed tribesmen for information on al-Harithi's whereabouts.

Asked about this later at a press conference, the State Department's spokesman refused to comment.

No matter how much this is presented as a clean-up operation, the situation has all the makings for a low-intensity war: a weak state, well-armed tribes, a background of Islamic militancy that is likely to grow as the campaign proceeds, and an uncertain but probably negative impact on Yemen's stability.

Last week, after an apparently serious threat to the 300-or-so Britons in Yemen, the Foreign Office closed its embassy in Sana'a to the public and issued a stern warning: "We advise against travel to Yemen, and advise British nationals resident there to consider leaving."

Meanwhile, a 21-year-old man arrested by the Kuwaiti authorities allegedly confessed that he had raised $127,000 to finance the bombing of a hotel in Yemen which is used by Americans.

These, we can be certain, are clear signs that the clean-up of Yemen will not go unchallenged.