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YEMEN - The Campaign Against Terror - Part 20.

Yemen is one of the central pillars in the Middle East in the US-led campaign against terror. Its President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has worked closely with the US since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the US has responded with strong economic and diplomatic support for Sanaa as and when required. Politically, the regime is stable with President Saleh in a functional working arrangement with the Islamist Hizb Al Islah (Party of Reform) led by Shaikh Abdullah Hussein Al Ahmar, who is also the parliament speaker.

Yet, Sanaa has found itself in a complex geo-political situation since 9/11. It has become increasingly clear that Yemeni territory is being used fairly extensively as a base for Al Qaida activists, being the original homeland of Osama Bin Ladin whose family hailed from the Hadhramaut region before migrating to Saudi Arabia. After the WTC/Pentagon attacks, key Al Qaida members were identified as being Yemenis or as having links to Yemen.

So when the war against terrorism was launched, Washington demanded and received full co-operation from the Yemeni authorities in their campaign. This included joint special forces operations against suspected Al Qaida hideouts in Yemen. Hundreds of people suspected of links with militant forces were arrested and many remain behind bars. Such operations continue under different guises, and it is strongly suspected that US forces are continuing to operate in the tribal areas. These territories are under almost continuous surveillance by satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator.

There were some mild strains in ties when the US began its media campaign in 2002, a few months after the Taliban were ousted from Afghanistan, to prepare world opinion for the upcoming war against Iraq. Like in most other Arab states, Yemeni public opinion opposed the military campaign to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein. Speaking on Aug. 17, 2002, the Parliament Speaker Shaikh Abdullah Al Ahmar - leader of the Islamist Al Islah movement which is the second biggest political force in the country - said the "US threat against Iraq is a threat against the entire Arab and Islamic nation".

However, the government was careful not to go too far in its criticism and, drawing on its negative experience from closely sympathising with Saddam in the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, to ensure that the relationship with the US would not deteriorate. It took years of diplomacy for Yemen to recover from the fall-out of the 1991 Gulf war's repercussions. Observers believe President Saleh took the pragmatic option and, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, discreetly provided whatever support Yemen could for the US for any assault on Iraq.

Top US officials have frequently praised the level of Yemeni co-operation in the war against terror. One of the most recent was during a visit to the country in June 2003 by Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI. Mueller delivered a letter from US President George W Bush conveying his gratitude and appreciating Yemen's co-operation in fighting terror. In a meeting attended by Yemeni Interior Minister Rashad Al Alimi and US Ambassador Edmund Hull, Saleh and Mueller discussed the exchange of information about terror.

The way in which Yemen responds to the challenges related to the campaign against terror will have a direct bearing on its geo-strategic prospects. By aligning itself with the US, the regime in Yemen has indicated how its worldview has been adjusted since the early 1990s. President Saleh is a pragmatic man, and most observers believe he has the shrewdness as well as the tribal credentials - which are crucial in Yemen - to navigate the external and internal difficulties that are likely to emerge in the coming years.

It is important to note in this context that Yemen is one of the few countries in the Arab World where a politically active and legal Islamist party has managed to co-exist with the regime. This is the result of a complex set of factors, ranging from the Yemeni tribal considerations to historical reasons, the factors behind the reunification of the northern and southern sectors in May 1990, the subsequent civil war in 1994 and so forth. Yemen is affected by Islamist militancy, but it does not pose a serious threat to the existing political superstructure.

Like other states in the Middle East, Yemen too has faced bombings and killings linked to militant groups. There was an upsurge of this phenomenon soon after the reunification of northern and southern Yemen in May 1990 and the eruption of the Gulf crisis months later. The fact that Yemen sympathised with Iraq during that crisis, while simultaneously providing some transit facilities to US forces, played a role in this upsurge. But an outbreak of violent militancy against the state did not occur in Yemen as it did in other countries of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa (see Re-drawing the Islamic Map of next week).
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Aug 11, 2003
Previous Article:TUNISIA - The Background In The War On Terror.
Next Article:YEMEN - A Pivotal Player In The War On Terror.

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