- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

SAN'A, Yemen As late as the 1960s, the massive ironclad doors of this walled city's Yemen Gate were shut tight every night, testament to a tribal country's well-founded suspicion of outsiders.
The British, Egyptians, Saudis and Russians have all been here, pursuing their intrigues over the last 40 years, fueling wars and rebellions in this Arab country strategically situated at the mouth of the Red Sea.
No wonder that, when a crowd formed around a foreigner recently at the gate, a man shouted a question about the expected arrival of American troops: "Are they coming to protect Yemen, or for Yemen to protect them?"
U.S. officials claim it is a little of both. They say fewer than 100 troops will come to train Yemeni security forces in mechanisms to track al Qaeda operatives who may be using the country for refuge or to plan attacks. It will help America's war on terror and provide stability for a country that has seen little of it, they say.
But success will depend on winning cooperation among a complex array of tribes and shifting political allegiances.
In this country of about 18 million people, many still identify first with their tribal heritage rather than their volatile government.
The current regime vows to fight side-by-side with the United States against al Qaeda. But the government also enlisted and rewarded Arabs trained in Afghanistan to win a civil war in 1994. It sided with Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war.
In November, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh met at the White House with President Bush, who was pleased with Yemen's willingness to cooperate in the war on terrorism. U.S. officials also were encouraged by Yemen's stepped-up help in investigating the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 soldiers an attack believed to have been carried out by bin Laden's network.
Al Qaeda militants are thought to have used a small boat packed with explosives to cripple one of the Navy's most advanced vessels.
Yemen is one of several dozen countries where al Qaeda operates, according to U.S. officials. There are no training camps or command centers here, they say, but there are individuals around with links to al Qaeda.
Finding them will take grass-roots support, and that could be hard to come by. Although a recent headline in the government-controlled press read: "Americans on way to help," most in this poor country with limited political freedoms distrust U.S. motives.
In markets where men buy bags of their afternoon fix of qat, a leafy stimulant tucked between cheek and gum, Osama bin Laden is arguably more popular than America.
"He is the top Muslim," said laborer Mohammed Mohsin, 24. "He is the only one who can fight America and Israel."
Many denounce bin Laden but still say the United States is sending troops just to win control over Yemen's strategic Arabian Sea shipping lanes or to boost its presence in the oil-rich region.
One of the biggest challenges will be the American plan to form a Yemeni coast guard to keep watch over the country's 1,100-mile coastline. The long and unprotected coast is just one of the factors making Yemen vulnerable to al Qaeda.
Like Afghanistan, Yemen is a land of harsh terrain that has always defied central rule.
Government officials acknowledge that two of the country's 18 provinces are out of their control, others say there are more such provinces. Also like Afghanistan, it is a country beset with illiteracy and poverty, with a per capita income of about $368 a year, according to the United Nations. Yemenis frequently say what they need most from America are new schools and hospitals.
Turbaned fighters, armed plentifully with Kalashnikov rifles, still guard the perimeter of their tribal territories; government police stations are nonexistent in many areas. In these parts, tribal elders settle disputes, requiring the quarrelling parties to put up Kalashnikovs and oxen as shows of good will.

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