SAN’A, Yemen (AP) — While ramping up the fight against al-Qaida with U.S. help, the Yemeni government has also escalated its own internal conflicts in the north and south that threaten to throw the fractured country into greater chaos and even nourish the terror group’s growth.
Yemeni troops backed with tanks and artillery launched new assaults against Shiite rebels, the military said Saturday, the latest offensive in an increasingly bloody war that has been raging for years on the capital’s northern doorstep.
Also, lethal clashes erupted this week between protesters and security forces struggling to put an end to a secessionist movement in the once-independent south, where bitterness toward San’a is swelling.
Observers question if the impoverished nation’s military can wage a determined campaign against al-Qaida under the strain of the multiple conflicts, and there are fears the terror group is seeking to link up with insurgents for new recruits, particularly in the south.
The United States, which is funneling millions of dollars to Yemen’s government to fight al-Qaida, is pressing San’a to resolve its internal turmoil and focus on the terror group. Washington warns that the al-Qaida offshoot here has become a global threat after it allegedly plotted a failed attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas.
“There have been numerous conflicts in Yemen and they seem to just get worse and worse,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday. “There are expectations and conditions on our continuing support for the government.”
Yemen’s deputy prime minister in charge of security and defense, Rashad al-Alimi, said Thursday that fighting al-Qaida was the government’s “first priority.” On Saturday, counter-terror units conducted exercises outside San’a, attacking a mock al-Qaida hideout and practicing a hostage-rescue operation.
What fuels Yemen’s instability is widespread alienation among tribes and factions toward a regime they complain has for years hoarded power and wealth among a small circle of supporters. They say their regions have been neglected, with poverty spreading and infrastructure left to deteriorate.
In much of the country, powerful tribes have filled the void, some sheltering al-Qaida fighters. The government holds firm authority only around the capital, and the troops or administrators it sends to lawless areas are seen by many locals as interlopers.
The government accuses al-Qaida of working with the Shiite rebels and southern secessionists, a claim denied by both. Unless the conflicts are resolved, al-Qaida may find allies, particularly among the southerners, Mohammed Abdel-Malik al-Mutawakkil, a political scientist at San’a University, told The Associated Press.
Support for al-Qaida is not strong among the southerners, “but if they find there is no solution (to their grievances), they will turn to any outlet, and some will accept” the terror group, he said.
The head of al-Qaida’s offshoot in Yemen, Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, appealed to southerners in May, expressing support for their cause and urging them to continue their fight against San’a’s “suppression and tyranny.” The south was the site of al-Qaida’s 2000 attack on the USS Cole, off the port of Aden.
The provinces of the south were an independent nation for decades, ruled by a socialist regime, until it unified with the north in 1990. Four years later, San’a put down a new independence bid in a 3-month civil war.
Since then, many in the south accuse San’a of taking oil revenues and land, dismissing southerners from the government and military, and imposing northern administrators.
“This regime has turned the south into a trash bin. The manner of the regime in the south is one of colonialism and occupation,” said Abbas al-Assal, a member of the main southern secessionist movement Al-Harak.
The succession movement gained new momentum in 2008, when the government, struggling under reduced oil revenues, cut pensions for veterans of the former southern state’s military. In a wave of protests since, security forces have opened fire on demonstrators at least six times in 2008 and 2009, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
Last Sunday and Tuesday, security forces in the former southern capital Aden twice tried to storm the offices of the south’s most influential newspaper, Al-Ayyam, where protests were being held against the paper’s closure last year for alleged secessionist tendencies.
Forces firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons clashed with the paper’s guards. The fighting killed a policeman and two office guards.
The paper’s chief editor, Hisham Bashraheel, and his son surrendered to police on Wednesday, but the incident has sparked street protests in other southern towns.
Al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister, said the government tolerates peaceful protests and accused the southerners of instigating violence. He denounced the secessionist movement as “outlaws.” The government showed pictures of weapons it said were seized in Al-Ayyam’s offices.
In the north, Shiite rebels known as Hawthis rose up against the government in 2004. Since August, the conflict escalated into full-fledged warfare, centered in the mountainous corner of Yemen between San’a and the Saudi border. Saudi forces joined in late, battling Yemen’s Shiite rebels along the frontier.
On Saturday, the military claimed to have killed dozens of rebels in clashes in the past few days.
San’a accuses Tehran of backing the rebels as part of an attempt by the mainly Shiite Iran to extend its power into the Sunni Arab world. But the U.S. and other Western nations are skeptical about Iranian involvement.
“It is an indigenous rebellion, largely a result of homegrown grievances,” a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the situation. “The chief element is the lack of development.”
The conflict also has religious overtones. Government elements in the past have encouraged a presence in the north of Sunni Salafist extremists, many of whom consider Shiites heretics. The result has been a backlash from Shiites, the diplomat said.
Salafis in the government and military are believed to be pushing President Ali Abdullah Saleh to continue the war in the north, and Sunni extremists have reportedly been brought in to fight alongside government forces.
Ali Mohammed Omar, a Salafist who runs an anti-secessionist movement in Aden, warns the regime cannot fight al-Qaida and the other two fronts at once.
“If the government opens a war on al-Qaida, that’s three (fronts), and the Yemeni army might collapse,” he told AP.