Sanaa, Yemen (UPI) Jan 27, 2009
Saudi Arabia's military has claimed victory after Yemeni rebels withdrew from the kingdom's borderlands, ending nearly three months of fighting.
But it is likely that this is part of a wider U.S.-imposed deal aimed at ending the rebellion so that Yemen's beleaguered president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, can concentrate on crushing al-Qaida's organization, which Washington sees as the main threat.
It is not clear how Saleh will be able to halt the fighting in northern Yemen against the Shiite tribal fighters known as Houthis after the clan that leads them.
But there were reports he was in contact with the rebels through the Hashed, one of Yemen's most influential tribes.
The Yemeni leader has stayed in power since 1978 by cutting deals with his opponents. He negotiated five truces with the rebels after they began their insurrection in 2004 over neglect and discrimination by the Sunni-dominated government in Sanaa.
All eventually broke down, the last one in August 2009. That prompted Saleh to launch an all-out assault, Operation Scorched Earth, in Saada province, the rebels' mountain stronghold along the Saudi border.
The Saudis launched their offensive on Nov. 4 after the rebels allegedly intruded into the kingdom and killed two border guards.
Saudi Arabia's military forces, with all their high-tech weaponry purchased largely from the United States at a cost of scores of billions of dollars over the last four decades, have seldom been tested in battle.
The border conflict was the Saudis' first real shooting war. They played a very minor combat role in the 1990-91 Gulf conflict over Kuwait.
Despite their superior firepower, particularly airstrikes and artillery bombardments, it was clear they found it hard going against the agile tribesmen fighting on their own rugged terrain.
The Saudis admitted to casualties of at least 133 killed with twice as many wounded. Losses incurred by the rebels and Yemen's military have not been disclosed, but they are probably heavy and run into the hundreds.
U.S. security consultancy Stratfor reported Monday that the Saudis had been seeking to buy off local tribes in Saada province "to compel the rebels to back down" and had made "significant progress."
In the past, the Saudis have made similar arrangements with the unruly border tribes to keep them quiet.
However, this time around, even as rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi announced his fighters were withdrawing from Saudi territory, there was the added dimension of U.S. pressure on Saleh to concentrate his forces on eliminating the jihadists of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
For the Americans, al-Qaida in Yemen is the overriding priority, particularly after a spate of recent attacks against the United States that were tied to AQAP.
These included the November slaughter of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, by a Muslim officer linked to an AQAP ideologue and the attempt by a Nigerian student to blow up a Northwest Airlines jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.
Crushing AQAP is paramount for the Saudis as well. They crushed a jihadist campaign in 2003-07. Many of the al-Qaida activists who survived fled to Yemen where the current organization was formed in 2009.
An Aug. 27 attempt to assassinate the Saudi prince who heads the kingdom's counter-terrorism forces in the Red Sea port of Jeddah marked a sharp escalation in al-Qaida's operations against the Saudi monarchy and demonstrated that the organization remained a mortal threat for the Saudis.
So they too would prefer to focus their attentions on crushing the jihadists rather than the Houthis, who are not a direct threat to Riyadh.
According to Intelligence Online, a Paris-based Web site that specializes in security affairs, Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Kourbi, spent a week in Washington huddled with the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon who is now the administration's main troubleshooter in the Middle East.
Feltman insisted that the northern fighting was a distraction for Yemeni security forces who should be hunting down al-Qaida in central and southern Yemen, according to Intelligence Online.
In the end, Feltman was reported to have made U.S. economic and security aid, which Saleh desperately needs to counter a collapsing economy, conditional on Saleh's regime making hitting al-Qaida its priority as soon as possible.
President Barack Obama approved the joint operations, which began six weeks ago and involve several dozen troops from the US Joint Special Operations Command, which is dedicated to hunting down Al-Qaeda leaders, the Post said, citing unnamed officials.
Although US troops do not take part in raids in Yemen, they plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and ammunition, the Post said.
The United States also is sharing highly sensitive intelligence with Yemeni forces, including electronic and video intelligence, three dimensional terrain maps and analytical assessments of Al-Qaeda, it said.
The United States has previously acknowledged supporting the Yemenis with intelligence and training, but has provided no details of its role in stepped up attacks on Al-Qaeda militants.
The US focus on Yemen, however, has intensified since a thwarted attempt to bring down a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day, allegedly by a Nigerian trained in Yemen by Al-Qaeda's regional branch.
The Post said the combined effort has resulted in more than two dozen ground raids and air attacks, including a December 24 attack approved by Obama against a compound where regional Al-Qaeda leaders were believed to be meeting.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell declined to comment on the report's details but praised Yemen's effort to combat Al-Qaeda militants.
"We applaud them for their aggressive and forceful response to this growing terrorist threat in their country," Morrell told a news conference on Wednesday.
He cited US financial assistance, military training and advice designed to help Yemen counter extremist threats and that the Obama administration stood ready to do more if asked.
"If that is something that the Yemeni government continues to find helpful, we will look for ways to continue to do that, if not broaden it," Morrell said.
"This is obviously a sensitive issue for the Yemeni government and we are mindful of their sovereignty."
Yemeni officials have warned against any high-profile US military presence in their country, with Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi saying last week that sending Western troops to his country to combat extremists would only fuel terrorism.
Obama has said he has "no intention" of deploying American ground forces to Yemen.
A senior military official told reporters this week that the administration planned to expand its military assistance to Yemen.
The newspaper report came as ministers and officials from 21 Western and Arab countries met in London to discuss security as well as the wider economic and political problems facing Yemen.
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Tel Aviv, Israel (UPI) Jan 25, 2009
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