Saturday, July 23, 2011

Yemen's opposition tells UN Envoy "transfer of power before dialogue"


News Yemen

Yemeni opposition parties have informed the envoy of the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon to Yemen that transfer of powers to Vice President Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi should be done before any dialogue.

A leader in the Joint Meeting Parties, Dr. Mohammad al-Mutawakel, said that the meeting with Ban Ki-moon's envoy, Jamal Bin Omar, on Saturday did not discuss anything new, but said the JMP stressed that President Saleh must transfer powers to his vice Hadi before any dialogue between the ruling party and JMP.

Bin Omar earlier called on all parties and political forces of Yemen to conduct a constructive national dialogue that does not exclude anyone, and create safe climates for ways out of the current crisis.

The UN envoy also met last week with a number of government officials, and opposition leaders, including the Secretary General of the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue, Hamid al-Ahmar.

Bin Omar also met last Thursday with Sheikh of Hashid tribes Sadiq al-Ahmar, who criticized the international position towards the Yemeni people's revolution and warned that situation in Yemen might shift to that in Libya "if the international community realize that."

Al-Ahmar said that the international community continues to turn blind eye to events in Yemen compared to its position towards events in Libya and Syria.

Al-Ahmar told the UN envoy that 'there is no disagreement on the transfer of power in Yemen, but the difference is on how the transfer of power should be," wondering the description of events in Yemen as political crisis.

"The crises in Yemen were in 2006 until 2010, but today it is a popular revolution," al-Ahmar was cited as saying.

Obama's escalating war in Yemen

As its government teeters, the impoverished and chaotic Gulf nation is the focus of a U.S. bombing campaign

By Justin Elliott

July 23, 2011

The Obama administration has in recent months intensified its bombing campaign in the unstable Gulf nation of Yemen, where Islamic militants have been the target of U.S. airstrikes for several years.

Just this month, a U.S. drone strike against militants in southern Yemen reportedly killed at least 50 people -- many of them civilians. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed U.S. officials this week saying that the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was "placing a higher priority on attacking the U.S. and Western targets overseas."

All of this is occurring against a backdrop of civil unrest and fighting in Yemen, where the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been trying to violently suppress opposition protesters for months. For an update on the situation in Yemen and the U.S. military campaign there, I spoke to Gregory Johnsen, a respected Yemen analyst and a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton.

There's a Wall Street Journal piece this week saying unnamed U.S. officials are worried about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula staging attacks outside of Yemen. What's your read on how much of a threat this group is?

With regards to the Wall Street Journal story, I'm not sure how much of that is new. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has for quite some time been really explicit in talking about targeting both Western and Yemeni government interests within the country as well as going after regional targets -- as well as of course going after the United States, as was shown on Christmas Day 2009 and in the parcel bomb plot last year.

The situation right now is very murky. There has been a great deal of fighting in the southern province, Abyan, which has been going on throughout most of the summer. There's a group that calls itself Ansar al-Shariah, or the supports of Shariah (Islamic law), that have been fighting with the Yemeni military in the capital of the province. There have also been a number of U.S. airstrikes targeting these militants. The belief is that Ansar al-Shariah is affiliated with or linked to al-Qaida, but most of that comes from a single interview, so we don't have a lot of information to back it up. Al-Qaida itself has not put out a great deal of publication materials since the protests in Yemen really got started. So at the moment we have a lot more questions than we have answers.

Do we know how many people there actually are in this al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula group?

A couple years ago, the foreign minister of Yemen came forward with the idea that there were 300 individuals in the group. Since he said that, many in the media have picked up on that and run with it, but I think it was really just his best guess. This year, for example, the Yemeni government has announced it has killed 200 or 250 members of al-Qaida since the fighting began earlier this spring. And we see on the ground that there are still people fighting for the organization and carrying out attacks in Abyan. So we don't have a very good sense of the numbers.

My reading of the situation is that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has actually gotten stronger in recent years, largely because of U.S. airstrikes. The U.S. has managed to kill some key mid-level commanders, but many of these individuals have been replaced quite quickly. And as the U.S. has killed them, there has been a significant amount of what's often referred to as collateral damage. That is, innocent women and children or unaffiliated civilians who are killed in these airstrikes. That tends to not only fit into al-Qaida's argument that Yemen is a legitimate theater of jihad, but also the people that have died tend to have brothers and uncles and cousins. We're seeing more and more people becoming radicalized.

Who exactly is being killed by all this American bombing? Is it clear to anyone what's really happening?

It's not at the moment. The problem is that the town of Zanjubar, where a lot of the fighting is going on now, has many internally displaced people. We've seen some video coming out of the city but it's really hard to confirm. There aren't a lot of journalists working on the ground. And the Yemeni government has of course sort of eroded away in the face of the protests in the last couple months, so it's hard for international journalists to work on the ground. Most of what has come out is either official statements by the Yemeni government or very sketchy unverified reports that are being passed through several intermediaries.

How intense is the American military campaign?

We know that the U.S. is certainly carrying out air and drone strikes. We know that the U.S. tried to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric, on May 5, and they missed. We know another individual who is on the FBI's Most Wanted list was targeted about a week ago, and they missed him as well. We're not always sure who is doing the bombing. There have been a number of instances where the Yemeni government falsely claimed to have carried out an air raid on a particular militant hideout. For instance there was a case where the militants had taken over a police station in a particular town, and the government claimed it had carried out an air raid on the station. It later turned out that it had actually been U.S. missiles that were fired. So it's become very difficult for outsiders to piece together what's going on because there is a lot of misinformation.

Earlier this month, President Saleh appeared on TV in a badly burned state from Saudi Arabia, a few weeks after a bombing at his palace. With all the protests and fighting, what's the state of the regime right now?

Essentially the military has switched. Large portions of it have defected and have joined what's broadly being called the protest movement. The other half of it -- the Republican Guard and other parts that are commanded by Saleh's relatives -- remain loyal to their commanders. This is the standoff. The government doesn't have a great deal of control over large portions of the country. It's only really in some urban areas where the Saleh government continues to carry out attacks against protesters.

Taking a step back, what we have is a very large anti-Saleh coalition made up of different interest groups within Yemen. Many of them have been opposed to one another but are currently being held together in an alliance against President Saleh. It's a very fragile, creaky alliance. There's a lot of bad blood and mistrust among the various actors. It's a very tense political stalemate while the president is out of the country. Everyone is sort of waiting around to see what happens next.

What role is the Obama administration playing besides the bombing?

The criticism that a lot of people have is that the U.S. is only looking for someone who is willing to partner with them to attack al-Qaida. Officially the U.S. has come out and said it's time for President Saleh to step down and it would like to see a very orderly political transition. But this has been difficult. There was a Gulf Cooperation Council proposal that was put forward three times during the spring. President Saleh each time said he would sign it; each time he balked at the last minute and did not sign. I think it's become clear that Saleh isn't going to step down unless he's really forced out. What we're seeing is that the U.S., as well as Saudi Arabia, either doesn't have or isn't using the proper amount of leverage with which to force President Saleh out. So now we have a situation where the country is crumbling: There are very severe problems with water shortages, with electricity, with gas shortages. The U.S. can fire as many missiles as it wants to against militants, but the situation in Yemen and the situation combating al-Qaida is not going to get any better until there's some kind of political transition. But we haven't seen the kind of creative diplomacy that would require -- either from the U.S. or from Yemen's neighbors.

Cursing The Darkness And Thirst

July 23, 2011: The tribal/al Qaeda uprising in the south has stalled as some of the southern tribes turned against al Qaeda. Part of this is anger at the disruptions to ordinary life. The increasing unrest in the south over the last few years was caused by too many people and too few jobs and too little income. This is especially acute because Saudi Arabia (and the smaller states in Arabia) are so much wealthier. But once al Qaeda went to war, the Islamic terrorists made things worse by further disrupting basic shortages (fuel, water, food and other goods). Al Qaeda is not a monolith in Yemen, but several factions sharing the same name. When these groups decided to take advantage of the growing disorder (as part of the Arab Spring movement) in the south earlier this year, groups of al Qaeda began attacking police and soldiers. Many tribesmen allied themselves with these al Qaeda members, which caused the government to lose control of many roads and towns in the south. But al Qaeda had no real plan for taking over, and tribal leadership in the south already had a lot of government power. Moreover, the members of the tribe were increasingly complaining about the electricity being cut off more frequently, and the growing difficulty in obtaining water and food. Al Qaeda is less concerned with such mundane matters, and that has led to fighting between tribesmen and al Qaeda (and their dwindling tribal allies.) All this is most visible in the southern province of Abyan, where most of the al Qaeda groups had found sanctuary over the past five years. But now, al Qaeda has to be more careful. Some tribes are setting up checkpoints to restrict al Qaeda movement, or even capture the Islamic radical gunmen. Despite this reshuffle in the south, the fuel and water shortages are still there.

The government has claimed to have killed 300 al Qaeda members so far this year. That's an indication of how small al Qaeda is in Yemen (a thousand or so members). Most of the firepower in the south is in the hands of individual tribesmen. Most people belong to tribes, and adult males tend to own a firearm of some sort. The recent offensive has caused several hundred casualties. The fighting in Yemen tends to be low-level (lots of rifle and machine-gun fire) and small scale (small groups of troops and gunmen.) But the army does have warplanes and artillery, and both are used regularly. American UAVs are now seen daily, and will occasionally fire missiles to hit terrorists that have been identified and located.

President Saleh, who has still not returned from the Saudi hospital he went to after the June 3rd rocket attack on the presidential palace that severely wounded him. Saleh is losing a growing amount of diplomatic support from major nations (especially the United States). But Saleh continues to maintain control of the government. The tribes, and many Saleh supporters, want Saleh to step down, and allow the powerful personalities and groups that dominate Yemeni society, reshuffle the people running things.

July 22, 2011: After five months, there are still large anti-government demonstrations every Friday. Nationwide, several hundred thousand people turned out today. In the capital (where many government employees owe their jobs to president Saleh), there was a pro-government demonstration. Increasingly, over the last month, the Friday demos have been about the fuel shortages. The main cause of this is the interruption of oil flow (caused by a bomb that broke a pipeline, carrying half the national production, in March). That shut down exports, and the refinery in Aden that supplies most of the nations vehicle, cooking, water pump and generator fuel. Thus there are water shortages, which has a serious impact on everyone, all the time. The oil pipeline cannot be repaired because a powerful tribal chief controls the territory around the break, and will not allow repair crews in until the government makes amends for the death of the chief's son last year. The government has threatened to send in troops to guard the repair crews. But then the army would have to devote thousands of troops to protect the pipeline from further attacks by enraged tribesmen.

July 20, 2011: The army claims to have killed al Qaeda leaders Ayedh al Shabwani and Awad Mohammed al Shabwani during a battle in Abyan province. Al Qaeda later denied that the two men were dead, but neither has come forth to confirm that.

In the southern city of Aden, a British surveyor died when his booby-trapped car exploded.

July 19, 2011: A violent clash in the capital left six dead, the first such deaths since president Saleh left for a Saudi hospital on June 3rd. This fighting was between armed civilian supporters of president Saleh, and anti-Saleh demonstrators.

July 17, 2011: Fighting in Abyan province included an effort to clear tribal and al Qaeda roadblocks that had left the main camp of the 25th mechanized brigade cut off from most supply for the last few weeks.

July 16, 2011: The army (along with tribal allies and logistical support from the United States) has begun an offensive against al Qaeda and rebellious tribesmen in the south. The towns of Mudiah and Shuqrah were quickly cleared, and heavy fighting was heard throughout towns and cities in Abyan province.

In the capital, some protestors tried to establish a rival government, in the form of a council. But this group could not obtain much widespread support, and most of the prominent individuals nominated for seats on the council, declined.

July 15, 2011: Groups of gunmen in trucks and cars drove though the southern cities of Huta and Aden, firing on soldiers and police, and then driving away (often after taking some return fire.)

The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has pledged to ship three million barrels of oil to Aden, to help relieve the fuel shortage. But while the refinery in Aden can turn this oil into fuel, there is still a problem distributing. Roads throughout the south are blocked by checkpoints set up by al Qaeda and, mostly, rebel tribesmen.