Yemen wants to reach out to Qaeda members

Seeks dialogue with militants who renounce violence

By Lee Keath
Associated Press / January 11, 2010

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SANA, Yemen - President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he is ready to talk to Al Qaeda members who renounce violence, suggesting that he could show them the same kind of leniency he has granted militants in the past despite US pressure to crack down on the terror group.

Yemen is moving cautiously in the fight against Al Qaeda, worried over a potential backlash in a country where extremism and anger at the United States are widespread. Thousands of Yemenis are battle-hardened veterans of past “holy wars’’ in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq, and though most are not engaged in violence now, they preserve an Al Qaeda ideology.

“Dialogue is the best way,’’ Saleh said in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV aired late Saturday. He said Yemen would pursue those who continued violence, but “we are ready to reach an understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism.’’

Ali Mohammed Omar, a Yemeni who said he fought in Afghanistan from 1990-1992 and met Osama bin Laden twice during that time, warned that “any movement against Al Qaeda will lead to the fall of the Yemeni regime.’’

If the United States or its allies become directly involved, “the whole [Yemeni] people will become Al Qaeda. Instead of 30 or 40 people, it would become millions,’’ he said in an interview.

Yemeni forces recently launched their heaviest strikes and raids against Al Qaeda in years, and Washington has praised Sana for showing a new determination against Al Qaeda’s offshoot in the country.

The United States has increased money and training for Yemen’s counterterror forces, calling Al Qaeda in Yemen a global threat after it allegedly plotted a failed attempt to bomb a US passenger jet on Christmas Day.

But Saleh’s new comments raised the possibility he could continue a policy that has frustrated US officials in the past - releasing militants on promises they will not engage in terrorism again. Several have since broken those promises and are believed to have returned to Al Qaeda’s ranks.

In the past, Yemeni officials have defended the reconciliation policy as a necessity, saying force alone cannot stop Al Qaeda.

In an interview with People magazine to be published Friday, President Obama said he has no intention of sending American troops to Yemen or Somalia. “In countries like Yemen, in countries like Somalia, I think working with international partners is most effective at this point.’’

General David Petraeus, who is overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said in interviews with CNN that aired yesterday that the United States has no plans to send troops.

Yemen has said it does not want US troops to be deployed, but the government has been weakened by multiple wars and crises. It has little authority outside a region around the capital, and tribes dominate vast areas of the impoverished mountainous nation.

Hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters, foreigners, and Yemenis, are believed to be sheltered in mountainous areas. Al Qaeda Yemenis get help from relatives, sometimes out of tribal loyalty more than ideology - and when the government kills or arrests militants or their relatives, it risks angering the heavily armed tribes.

Another reason for Saleh’s cautious approach is his regime’s alliances with hard-line Islamists, such as Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, one of Yemen’s most prominent clerics.

The United States has labeled him a terrorist for alleged links to Al Qaeda. But the government relies on his tacit support and denies he is a member of the terror group.

In a prayer sermon Friday, Zindani railed against US pressure to fight Al Qaeda, accusing Washington and the United Nations of seeking to “impose an international occupation of Yemen.’’

The regime has also used Islamic radicals to fight in an ongoing bloody war against Shi’ite rebels in the north and to oppose secessionists in the south - two threats that many feel the government sees as more dangerous than Al Qaeda.