SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen’s interim president has won U.S. praise for cooperating in a war on al Qaeda, but his recent public support for drone strikes that sometimes kill civilians could undermine his domestic popularity and stir sympathy for militants.
Yemen, an Arabian Peninsula country where al Qaeda militants exploited a security vacuum during last year’s rising against Ali Abdullah Saleh, has witnessed an escalated campaign of U.S. missile strikes in recent months, often using the pilotless aircraft known as drones.
In a departure from Saleh’s policies, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi spoke openly in favor of the drone strikes during a trip to the United States last month. Praised by the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa as being more effective against al Qaeda than his predecessor, Hadi was quoted as saying that he personally approved every attack.
The comments came after a September strike that killed 12 civilians in Radaa, a small Yemeni town south of Sanaa, and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in the capital by protesters angry over an anti-Islam film made in California.
Youth activist Ibrahim Al-Mothana said Hadi, elected in February for a two-year transitional period, was trying to win favor with international donors but imperils support at home.
“He’s trying to get international legitimacy, and he needs American and European support, so I think that’s what drove him, rather than being more open and frank about it,” he said.
“Hadi’s main task is the national dialogue, which will create a new national contract. But if the process is undermined by drones, that will be problematic.”
Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables said that Saleh had agreed in 2009 to a covert U.S. war on Islamist militants and accepted to take responsibility for attacks when necessary.
Bashraheel Hesham Bashraheel, chairman of the al-Ayyam newspaper group, said Hadi had won short-term respect from some Yemenis for being more open about drones than Saleh.
“He wants to make a clear distinction, he wants to say I approved every raid. It gives the impression he is in control and not the Americans,” Bashraheel said. “It impressed people and earned him some respect. He’s not lying like Saleh used to.”
However, with public anger rising, politicians are becoming more vocal in their opposition to U.S. operations.
The Shi’ite Islamist Houthi movement and influential Sunni cleric Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani - on a U.S. terrorism list - have stepped up criticism of drones in the past month.
“At first people didn’t talk, but after Radaa, things have changed, said Ali Abd-Rabbu al-Qadi, a parliamentarian from Maareb where many attacks have taken place. “These air strikes prepare the ground for al Qaeda and terrorism.”
Yemenis complain the U.S. focus on militants is a violation of sovereignty that is driving many towards al Qaeda and diverting attention from other pressing issues such as unemployment, corruption, water depletion and economic revival.
Hadi is under U.S. pressure to prioritize the war on militants, who set up al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2007 by merging the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
“The Americans only think of use of violence, they need to think of using development,” said Mohammed al-Mutawakel, a political science professor. “They failed in Afghanistan and Iraq. I hope they don’t make the same mistake again in Yemen.”
Parties in the post-Saleh interim government have been largely silent or even expressed muted public support over drone strikes, in an effort to win the favor of a country seen as the real source of political power in Yemen, analysts say.
The United States, eager to see Yemen recover from upheaval that put the impoverished state on the verge of collapse, has said it would provide $345 million in security, humanitarian and development assistance this year - more than double last year’s aid but much less than needed, one government official said.
Western diplomats say they believe most Yemenis support the operations, but acknowledge that public opposition is rising.
“Nobody wants to see the drones (but) we have people who are posing an imminent threat to the security and stability of Yemen as well as threatening security throughout the world,” a senior diplomat said. “The solution ultimately will be on the basis of building up Yemeni capabilities.”
While Washington usually avoids comment, the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks U.S. operations, says between 36 and 56 civilians have died this year.
At a recent funeral for those who died in the attacks in Radaa, relatives suggested tribes would take revenge if Sanaa did not do something to stop them.
“We are just farmers, in our homes, who are disturbed constantly in the middle of the night by American planes above,” said Jamal Abdu al-Sabouri, a relative of one of the Radaa victims. “We want a solution and we demand that Hadi pay attention to this issue... We want security and stability but if they’re going to disturb us, we’ll disturb everyone too.”
In the chaos of the disintegration of Saleh’s system of tribal and religious alliances, tribes have taken steps to express displeasure with Hadi’s government. Electricity lines were attacked in Maarib last month after a court issued death sentences against kinsmen accused of al Qaeda militancy.
“A strike like this isn’t a simple thing. It makes us lose hope in the state or that there even exists a Yemeni state here,” said Muhammed Muqbil, who lost three relatives.
(Additional reporting by Abdulrhman al-Ansi; Editing by Sami Aboudi)
This story was refiled with the president's full name in the third paragraph