- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen | Yemen’s president said he is ready to talk to al Qaeda members who renounce violence, suggesting he could show them the same kind of leniency he has granted militants in the past despite U.S. pressure to crack down on the terror group.

Yemen is moving cautiously in the fight against al Qaeda, worried over a potential backlash in a country where anger at the U.S. and extremism are widespread. Thousands of Yemenis are battle-hardened veterans of past “holy wars” in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq and, although most are not engaged in violence now, they preserve a die-hard al Qaeda ideology.

“Any movement against al Qaeda will lead to the fall of the Yemeni regime,” warned Ali Mohammed Omar, a Yemeni who fought in Afghanistan from 1990 to 1992 and says he met Osama bin Laden twice during that time.

If the U.S. or its allies become directly involved, “the whole [Yemeni] people will become al Qaeda. Instead of 30 or 40 people, it would become millions,” he said in an interview.

President Obama, in an interview with People magazine to be published Friday, said he has no intention of sending American troops to Yemen or Somalia.

“I never rule out any possibility in a world that is this complex,” Mr. Obama said in transcripts of the interview released Sunday. However, he added, “in countries like Yemen, in countries like Somalia, I think working with international partners is most effective at this point.”

“I have no intention of sending U.S. boots on the ground in these regions,” Mr. Obama said in the interview, conducted last Friday.

Gen. David Petraeus, who is overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also told CNN Sunday that Washington has no plans to send ground troops to Yemen.

“We would always want a host nation to deal with a problem itself. We want to help. We’re providing assistance,” Gen. Petraeus said. “Right now, as far as any kind of boots on the ground there, with respect to the United States, … that’s not a possibility,” Adm. Mullen said.

Yemeni forces recently launched their heaviest strikes and raids against al Qaeda in years, and Washington has praised San’a for showing a new determination against al Qaeda’s offshoot in the country.

The United States has increased money and training for Yemen’s counterterror forces, calling al Qaeda in Yemen a global threat after it purportedly plotted a failed attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day.

But President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s comments raised the possibility he could continue a policy that has frustrated U.S. officials in the past — releasing al Qaeda militants on promises they will not engage in terrorism again.

Several have since broken those promises and are believed to have returned to al Qaeda’s ranks.

“Dialogue is the best way … even with al Qaeda, if they set aside their weapons and return to reason,” Mr. Saleh said in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV aired late Saturday.

He said Yemen would pursue those who continued violence, but “we are ready to reach an understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism.”

In the past, Yemeni officials have defended the reconciliation policy as a necessity, saying force alone cannot stop al Qaeda.

Mr. Saleh’s government has been weakened by multiple wars and crises. It has little authority outside a region around the capital, and tribes dominate vast areas of the impoverished mountainous nation — many of them bitter at the central government for failing to develop their regions.

Hundreds of al Qaeda fighters, both foreigners and Yemenis, are believed to be sheltered in mountainous areas. Al Qaeda Yemenis get help from relatives, sometimes out of tribal loyalty more than ideology — and when the government kills or arrests militants or their relatives, it risks angering the heavily armed tribes.

In Yemen, “it is difficult to draw the line between who is a fundamentalist and who is al Qaeda. It’s a spectrum,” said Ali Saif Hassan, who runs a Yemeni group that mediates between the government and opposition.

The regime has also used Islamic radicals to fight in an ongoing war against Shi’ite rebels in the north and to oppose secessionists in the south — two threats that many feel the government sees as more dangerous than al Qaeda.

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