Yemen in the crosshairs

January 15, 2010

The US government had a terrifying New Year's message for the people of Yemen — you are our targets this year.

During his weekly radio address on January 2, President Barack Obama set the stage for a new front in the US war on terror. He linked a December 25 bombing attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit to an al-Qaeda group in Yemen.

The same day, US General David Petraeus visited Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The US, along with the British government, plans to fund a special counter-terrorism police unit in Yemen.

The next day, the US and Britain ordered that their embassies shut down in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a.

The hawks were getting behind the Obama administration taking swift action in Yemen as part of the "war on terrorism".

Senate Homeland Security Committee chair Joe Lieberman said: "Yemen now becomes one of the centres of that fight. We have a growing presence there — and we have to — of special operations, Green Berets, intelligence."

Lieberman told the Australian ABC News: "Somebody in our government said to me in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, [that] Iraq was yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war.

'Tomorrow's war'

"If we don't act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war."

The Obama administration appears to be moving quickly toward deadly assaults on Yemen. But while US officials try to claim that targeting Yemen is about protecting the US from terrorist attack, Yemen has been in US sights for some time.

The only difference now is it's out in the open.

Long before a young Nigerian stepped onto a Northwest flight wearing explosives, the US was fighting a covert war in Yemen.

On December 17, the US launched Cruise missiles against two alleged al-Qaeda sites in Yemen on orders from Obama.

It took several days for US officials to admit its role in the strikes. News reports from Yemen initially attributing the attacks to the Yemen Air Force.

Yemen opposition forces said the raids killed 63 people, 28 of them children, in the province of Abyan.

Yemeni security forces also conducted raids in three more locations, in which 120 people were reportedly killed. Again, opposition leaders said many of the dead were civilians.

US drones have conducted a covert assault on alleged al-Qaeda bases in Yemen for about a year. CIA agents have been on the ground there, as have US Special Forces, who are also involved in training Yemeni military forces.

Before the Christmas incident, the US already had plans to increase its spending on counter-terrorism in Yemen from US$67 million in 2009 to as much as $190 million in 2010, the Wall Street Journal said on January 4.

Abdulelah Haidar Shaea, an expert on al-Qaeda in Yemen, told the December 28 British Guardian: "The US Air Force has been flying over eastern and southern areas of Yemen, taking pictures of what they think are training camps for al-Qaeda.

"The Yemeni air force attacked these places. Just as in Waziristan [Pakistan], the U.S. involvement led to civilian casualties, which mean people will join al-Qaeda in revenge."

So is it much of a surprise the US, which is behind so much violence in Yemen, is viewed as a target for violence?

Poverty and civil war

Yemen is marked by extreme poverty and political corruption. It has few natural resources.

The country's few oilfields are expected to run dry in the coming years. About 45% of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day, the United Nations says.

The Saleh government likely hopes it can use US backing for its "war on terror" to maintain its tenuous hold on power.

The north and south of the country were officially unified in 1990. However, the Saleh government faces a growing secessionist movement in the south and an insurgency in the north, led by Houthis — militant members of the Zaydi Shia group that makes up about a third of the country's population.

In August, the Saleh government ended its cease-fire with the Houthis, and launched what it called "Operation Scorched Earth". In November, Saudi warplanes bombed alleged Houthi rebel positions along the border.

In a December 31 British Independent opinion piece, Patrick Cockburn said the Yemeni government "has long been trying to portray the Shia rebels in north Yemen as Iranian cats-paws in order to secure American and Saudi support".

"Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula probably only has a few hundred activists in Yemen, but the government … will portray diverse opponents as somehow linked to al-Qaeda."

US intervention will only make conditions worse for Yemenis. It will increase the possibility of existing divisions growing deeper and of cementing Saleh's corrupt rule.

It also does nothing to stop the terrorism it was supposedly initiated to defeat. In fact, US policy gives it the fuel it needs to flourish and grow.

With its threats to Yemen, as with its escalation of the war on Afghanistan, the Obama administration is expanding the same policies of war and intervention as the Bush administration.

And with covert and not-so-covert air strikes and other military operations in Yemen, Obama is also following in the footsteps of the Bush doctrine of "pre-emptive war" against any country the US deems a "failed state".

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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