Video: A show of force in Yemen

NBC News and news services
updated 1/6/2010 6:22:33 PM ET 2010-01-06T23:22:33

As Yemen becomes the new front in the war on terror, its leaders want this to be clear: It does not intend to become another Iraq or Afghanistan with thousands of U.S. troops on the ground.

Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi drew some red lines Wednesday in its burgeoning alliance with Washington against al-Qaida, telling The Associated Press that Yemen welcomes U.S. and foreign troops for training, intelligence and logistical support.

"But not in any other capacity," he said, adding, "there is a lot of sensitivity" among Yemenis about foreign combat troops. He underlined that Yemeni forces would remain under Yemeni command, without any joint authority with the Americans.

His comments came as Yemeni security forces carried out a hunt for Mohammed Ahmed al-Hanaq, the suspected leader of an al-Qaida cell believed to be plotting attacks on the U.S. Embassy or other consulates in Yemen. While troops searched in the mountainous region of Arhab northeast of San'a where he was hiding, officials were negotiating with local tribal sheiks, demanding al-Hanaq's surrender.

Washington and San'a are still feeling out how far they can go in their newly intensified partnership against al-Qaida, whose fighters have dug roots into the mountains of this impoverished Arab nation and now, the Obama administration says, present a global threat.

Weakened by wars
Military personnel from the United States and other Western countries are already on the ground helping train Yemeni counterterror units and exchanging intelligence, and Washington and Britain are ramping up aid, pouring in tens of millions of dollars to build up the security forces.

Yemen's government has been weakened by wars, poverty and its own misrule and corruption. Central authority barely extends beyond the capital, and heavily armed tribes control large areas. Many tribes are bitter toward San'a, and some give refuge to al-Qaida fighters.

The U.S. says the group in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, trained and provided the explosive materials for the 23-year-old Nigerian accused of trying to blow up an American passenger jet heading to Detroit on Christmas Day. This week, the U.S. and other Western countries temporarily closed their embassies in San'a after threats of a terrorist attack surfaced. The move was criticized by al-Qirbi.

"It was the wrong decision actually," he said of the closures Sunday and Monday. "Closing embassies in response to a threat plays into the hands of the terrorists."

He was also critical of Obama's decision to halt the release of Yemenis held at Guantanamo Bay military prison, out of fear they could return to terror activities. The government "would like Yemenis to be handed over" and will prosecute any who committed crimes, al-Qirbi said.

Al-Qirbi said the U.S. should focus itself on building up Yemen's own forces.

Mistrust of the United States is high among the population of 22 million, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh relies in part on support from Islamic conservatives — including some in the military — who may resist too close an alliance with the Americans against al-Qaida.

As a result, while Yemen has embraced U.S. help, Saleh is deeply wary of giving up too much authority or appearing to be a tool of Washington, a charge often leveled by extremists against Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"I'm sure that (the West's) experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be very useful to learn from — that direct intervention complicates things," he said.

John Brennan, President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, said this week the U.S. is not talking about deploying combat troops in the country.

Sensitive strikes
On Monday, Yemen's security forces tried to capture al-Hanaq in an assault on his convoy. Al-Hanaq escaped, but two fighters with him were killed. The U.S. and British embassies reopened the following day, saying the operation largely resolved the threat.

On Tuesday, security forces arrested three other cell members wounded in the clash while they were being treated in a hospital in a nearby town. Four people who took them to the hospital were also detained, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday.

At a briefing Wednesday, Western analysts and diplomats described Yemen's recent efforts to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula as "a positive beginning," NBC's Richard Engel reported. They identified the top leaders of the group as Nassar Wahishi, Said al-Shihri and Kassem al-Rimi and said there are 200-300 hard-line fighters or suicide bombers.

American support includes training by U.S. Special Operation forces, equipment, spare parts for weapons and helicopters, weapons, and vehicles for Yemeni counterterrorism units, Western sources told NBC News.

Yemen wants more equipment, especially several dozen helicopters, and it looks likely the U.S. will provide them, the officials said.

U.S. weapons involved?

Yemen carried out its biggest strikes in years against al-Qaida hideouts last month, and it has beefed up troops in al-Qaida strongholds around San'a and in outlying provinces.

But the strikes have also illustrated the sensitive nature of U.S. cooperation, amid media reports that U.S. cruise missiles or warplanes were used in the attacks. U.S. officials have not confirmed the reports, and Yemen says its air force — which has Russian-made MiG warplanes — carried out the strikes with U.S. intelligence help.

Earlier this week, al-Qirbi insisted there is no agreement allowing the American military to use cruise missiles, armed drones or warplanes on Yemeni territory, "and there is no proposal for such an agreement."

A number of women, children and other civilians were reported killed in one of the strikes, a Dec. 17 attack on a suspected al-Qaida training camp. The deaths raised an outcry among Yemenis — and San'a fears the possibility of fueling sympathy for al-Qaida, as Afghan and Pakistani officials argue U.S. strikes have in their countries.

An international conference being convened by Britain with the U.S. and other nations on Jan. 27 will explore ways of fighting al-Qaida in Yemen. Al-Qirbi said he hopes the London gathering will bring promises of aid. "On these commitments and on the response to Yemen's needs will depend the success of Yemen in fighting terrorism and radicalization."

This article includes reports from NBC News' Richard Engel and The Associated Press.

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