- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen — Yemen’s foreign minister said Wednesday that his country opposes any direct intervention by U.S. or other foreign troops in the fight against al Qaeda.

Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told the Associated Press in an interview that “there is a lot of sensitivity about foreign troops coming to Yemeni territory.”

The United States has ramped up its counterterrorism aid to Yemen in an intensified campaign to uproot al Qaeda’s offshoot here, which Washington warns has become a “global” threat. U.S. military personnel already have been on the ground training Yemeni security forces in the fight, and intelligence cooperation has increased.

Mr. Al-Qirbi said Yemen’s government would welcome more military trainers, “but not in any other capacity.”

“There is a lot of debate among them about how far they should get involved in Yemen,” Mr. al-Qirbi said, referring to the United States and its allies. “I’m sure that their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be very useful to learn from — that direct intervention complicates things.”

So far, the United States has indicated it is not aiming to deploy ground forces in Yemen. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said earlier in the week, “We’re not talking about that at this point at all.”

But Mr. al-Qirbi’s comments underscored how Washington must tread carefully as it strengthens its partnership with Yemen’s fragile government, which has little control over large parts of the country outside the capital and rules over a population where Islamic conservatism and mistrust of the Unites States is widespread.

There have been media reports that U.S. cruise missiles or warplanes were involved in strikes carried out last month against several al Qaeda strongholds, which Yemen said killed at least 30 militants. U.S. officials have not confirmed the reports. Yemen said its air force, which has Russian-made MiG warplanes, carried out the strikes with U.S. intelligence help.

Earlier this week, Mr. al-Qirbi insisted there is no agreement between Yemen and the United States allowing the American military to use cruise missiles, drones or warplanes in strikes on Yemeni territory, “and there is no proposal for such an agreement.”

The issue is highly sensitive for the Yemenis. In 2002, the government was infuriated when U.S. officials made public that U.S. cruise missiles were used in a strike that killed a top al Qaeda figure, Abu Ali al-Harithi, believed to be the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen. San’a complained that the exposure embarrassed it before the Yemeni public.

Complicating the situation, a number of women, children and other civilians were killed in one of the recent strikes, a Dec. 17 attack on a suspected al Qaeda training camp in southeastern Yemen. The deaths raised an outcry among Yemenis, and San’a is deeply wary of the possibility that strikes could turn the population against it and the fight against al Qaeda.

Yemen has intensified its campaign against the hundreds of al Qaeda militants who have built up strongholds in lawless regions of this impoverished mountainous nation.

Security forces arrested three suspected al Qaeda militants from a cell that the United States has said was linked to a plot against the American or other embassies, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday.

The three were captured Tuesday at a hospital where they were being treated after being wounded in clashes with security forces a day earlier. In those clashes, Yemeni forces attacked a group of al Qaeda fighters moving in the mountains in the Arhab region. The troops were aiming to capture al Qaeda’s suspected leader in the area, Mohammed Ahmed al-Hanaq, and a relative, Nazeeh al-Hanaq, the ministry said.

They escaped, but two fighters with them were killed, and several others were wounded.

No identities were given for the captured militants.

Mr. al-Qirbi told AP that Yemen seeks Western help in “establishing more counterterrorism units, training them, equipping them and providing them with logistical support.” He ruled out the possibility of any joint command for those forces between Yemen and the United States.

He also called for greater economic aid to Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arab world, “because this is the way to deal with radicalization, extremism and terrorism.”

Mr. Obama has vowed a close partnership with San’a against al Qaeda, but there are also deep concerns over the stability of the Yemeni government, which is burdened with crises. Heavily armed tribes dominate large parts of the country, where the military and civilian administration have almost no authority.

Many of the tribes resent the central government, saying it neglects development in their areas, and some tribes have given refuge to al Qaeda fighters.

Moreover, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government is fighting a war with Shi’ite rebels in the north and contending with separatist unrest in the south, which was once independent. Corruption is rampant, and Mr. Saleh has to balance among the unruly factions that keep him in power, including influential Islamic fundamentalists who many worry will resist close cooperation with Washington against al Qaeda.

AP correspondent Ahmed al-Haj in San’a contributed to this report.

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