SANAA (Reuters) - The United States views al Qaeda militants operating from Yemen as an urgent concern, Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday in the first visit to Sanaa by a U.S. secretary of state in 20 years.
Washington is anxious for Yemen, next door to the world's top oil exporter, to step up its fight against an al Qaeda wing based in Yemen, where militants have attempted ambitious attacks against U.S. and Western targets.
"I want to be frank. There are terrorists operating from Yemeni territory today, many of whom are not Yemeni, some of whom I'm sorry to say are American citizens. So this is an urgent concern for both of us," Clinton told a civil society gathering in Sanaa following talks with Yemen's president.
"They have sought to attack our country. And I know they have caused death, injury and destruction in Yemen. So stopping these threats would be a priority for any nation, and it is for the United States," she added.
Clinton was in the Arabian Peninsula state to convey to the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh the importance of fighting al Qaeda at its grassroots.
"It's not enough to have military-to-military relations," Clinton said before almost two hours of talks with Saleh. "We need to try to broaden the dialogue. We need to have this dialogue with the government."
After the talks, a senior U.S. official said Saleh had emphasized cooperation in combating terrorism in his remarks to Clinton. "He wanted to let her understand that he is fully committed," the official said.
Clinton had emphasized the need for consensus building in political reforms. "You shouldn't be trying to jam things down peoples' throats," the briefer said.
He said U.S. officials were encouraged by Saleh's remarks on counter-terrorism, but declined to elaborate. "He said some things that were encouraging. Encouraging words need follow-up."
Clinton's trip was mainly about working together to fight the militants, but the United States was also sincere in pushing for broader cooperation on facing Yemen's social, political and economic challenges, he said.
"We can't overemphasize CT (counter-terrorism)," the official said. "But equally the Yemeni people had to see that our partnership is not only about us."
Yemen-based al Qaeda militants, engaged in hit-and-run attacks on Yemeni forces in recent months, have aroused U.S. attention with failed plots to bomb cargo planes in October and to blow up a U.S. passenger jet in 2009.
Washington has been quietly ramping up its role in Yemen, hoping to stop the slide toward state failure in a country also facing separate domestic rebellions in the north and south in addition to an al Qaeda resurgence.
But the United States is also acutely aware that too big of a footprint could exacerbate fierce anti-American sentiment in Yemen and undermine Saleh's already weak central government.
U.S.-Yemen relations have been strained by Washington's desire for a quicker pace of economic and political reforms, which it hopes would slow recruitment by militants, an aide to U.S. President Barack Obama said last month.
Yemen later said it would set up special anti-terrorist forces in four provinces in the south and east to fight al Qaeda. Clinton said Washington and Yemen now increasingly had "a very strong partnership" on counter-terrorism.
She did not bring any new aid pledge to Sanaa, but said Washington was seeking to rebalance its $300 million aid package, now weighted in favor of security and military assistance, to give more weight to civilian aid.
"We face a common threat posed by the terrorists and al Qaeda but our partnership goes beyond counterterrorism," Clinton said in a statement after talks with Saleh.
"We are focused not just on short-term threats but long-term challenges," she added as the president stood beside her. "We support an inclusive political process that will in turn support a unified, prosperous, stable, democratic Yemen."
She left later for neighboring Oman, where her talks are expected to focus on Iran.
About 42 percent of Yemen's 23 million people live on less than $2 a day, the World Bank says. Revenue from dwindling oil output fell 70 percent in Jan-Oct 2009. New gas exports cannot fill the gap.
Yemen's population is set to double in 20 years, but jobs are already scarce and water resources are collapsing.
Donors will be wary of throwing more money at Yemen, which has managed to spend only a fraction of $5 billion pledged at a 2006 conference, without tight supervision.
Asked about political reforms, Clinton said: "We see that Yemen is going through a transition. It could go one way or the other. It could go the right way or the wrong way. And we want to support those in Yemen who are trying to transition to a solid, peaceful, democratic system and voices can be heard."
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa, writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Paul Taylor)