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U.S .Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Yemen in two decades, hoped to press Yemeni leaders to do more to crack down on anti-American extremism.
U.S .Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Yemen in two decades, hoped to press Yemeni leaders to do more to crack down on anti-American extremism. Gamal Noman/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a stop in Yemen on Tuesday to repair damaged relations and push for greater cooperation on counterterrorism in a country that has increasingly become a staging area for al-Qaida-affiliated operatives.
The unannounced visit was conducted under tight security. Clinton landed in the capital, Sanaa, where she met with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and had discussions with other Yemeni leaders before traveling on to Oman.
After her meeting with the Yemeni president, Clinton emphasized the need to shut down safe havens for terrorists.
"We face a common threat posed by the terrorists and al-Qaida, but our partnership goes beyond counterterrorism," she said. "We are focused not just on short-term threats, but long-term challenges."
The dialogue between Yemen and the United States has been complicated by the disclosure of secret U.S. diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks website. One of those documents reported that a senior Yemeni official lied to Parliament by denying the U.S. was involved in airstrikes against wanted targets.
NPR's Michele Kelemen, who is traveling with Clinton, said the secretary also hoped to discuss the need for political reforms in Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arab world, where the government is dealing with a Shiite rebellion in the north and a separate secession movement in the south.
Clinton, who is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Yemen in two decades, hoped to press Yemeni leaders to do more to crack down on anti-American extremism thought to be inspired by U.S.-Yemeni radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He is believed to be hiding in Yemen and is subject to a U.S. kill-or-capture order.
With her visit, Clinton "wants to show Americans that the Obama administration is focused on this issue," Kelemen said. "But she's also planning to talk to Yemenis about the need for them to be focused, telling Yemenis that it's in their interest, not just America's … to make sure that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is not given safe haven."
Several anti-U.S. attacks in the past decade have either been planned on Yemeni soil or inspired by Yemeni-based radical leaders, such as Awlaki. The country has been a base of sorts for al-Qaida and its affiliates dating back to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor, which killed 17 American sailors.
Just last month, several CIA operatives narrowly escaped an attack at a restaurant in a Sanaa suburb, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is thought to be behind the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an American airliner bound for Detroit.
Awlaki is also believed to have inspired the deadly 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. The al-Qaida group's fighters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa twice in 2008, and earlier this month Yemeni officials said al-Qaida gunmen killed 17 soldiers in two attacks in the country's restive south.
"Yemen recognizes the threat" posed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula "and has become increasingly committed to a broad-based counterterrorist strategy," Clinton told reporters after landing in Sanaa.
Clinton said the U.S. wants to address the underlying causes of extremist violence, like grinding poverty, social inequality and political divisions.
"This is a country that Secretary Clinton points out is running out of oil, it's running out of water, so development issues are crucial to it," Kelemen said.
The secretary of state told reporters that while Washington is offering no new aid package, it is rebalancing its existing aid "so it is not so disproportionately consisting of funding necessary for the counterterrorism agenda but also includes the other priorities."
In the past five years, U.S. military assistance to Yemen has totaled about $250 million. U.S. officials say military aid to Yemen would reach $250 million in 2011 alone. Clinton said that will be accompanied by additional development aid.
At the same time, the U.S. is actively involved in battling al-Qaida in Yemen.
But Washington often has complained of a lack of cooperation in information-sharing and a lack of determination from Yemen to take on the militant group.
President Obama's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, called Saleh last month, asking him to take "forceful" action against al-Qaida to thwart its plans to carry out attacks in Yemen and abroad. Last week, Brennan called Saleh to express his condolences for the deaths of about a dozen Yemeni soldiers in the fight.
With U.S. help, Yemen is setting up provincial anti-terrorism units to confront al-Qaida in its heartland, broadening the scope of its operations with highly trained, U.S.-funded anti-terrorism units going into havens not attacked before.
The new units will operate in Shabwa, where Awlaki is believed to be hiding, as well as in the mountainous central Marib province, in Abyan and the eastern province of Hadramawt, where many al-Qaida operatives are taking refuge and where the government has little control, according to government officials.
American officials say the units will hit al-Qaida targets inside Yemeni territory and could include the use of U.S. special operations teams working with Yemeni counterterrorist forces, along with Predator or Reaper drones, which are currently flown from Djibouti or other locations in the region.
But with a shaky government and ongoing rebellions in the country, Washington is concerned that any aid to Yemen ends up in the right hands, Kelemen said.
The U.S. wants Saleh "to be fighting al-Qaida," not his internal enemies, she said.
"So, it's a very fine line that [Clinton] has to walk here," she said.