WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's decision to boost U.S. aid to Yemen to help the small Arabian Peninsula country fight al Qaida risks tying the U.S. more closely to an autocratic ruler whose repression of economic and political grievances is strengthening the terrorists and pushing his impoverished nation toward breakup.
"Any association with the (Yemeni) regime will only confirm al Qaida's narrative, which is that America is only interested in maintaining corrupt and despotic rulers and is not interested in the fate of Arabs and Muslims," warned Bernard Haykel, a Princeton University professor.
The State Department's latest international human rights report cited allegations that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime tortures and assassinates suspected opponents, operates secret prisons and muzzles independent media.
Security forces run by Saleh's close relatives and reportedly advised by former officers of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard are accused of using "excessive force" against a four-year-old Shiite Muslim rebellion in north Yemen, uprooting thousands of civilians.
In the once independent south, meanwhile, a crackdown on what had been a peaceful movement against alleged political and economic marginalization has ignited demands for secession and violence.
A major risk for Obama, experts said, is that Yemenis, Saudis and others will be drawn in greater numbers to join al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the network's Yemen-based franchise, to fight the unpopular Saleh or stage attacks on his U.S. benefactor.
Stepping up U.S. security aid to Saleh "can actually play into the hands of al Qaida," warned Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who's been warning for years about a growing terrorist threat from Yemen.
Obama announced his decision to "strengthen our partnership" with Saleh after the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner by a 23-year-old Nigerian man alleged to have been trained and dispatched by al Qaida.
U.S. officials said they expect this year's U.S. development and security assistance to Yemen to increase by more than $10 million to $63 million, more than three times greater than in 2008.
The sum, however, doesn't include U.S. funds for training and equipping Yemen's counterterrorism and border security forces. In a letter delivered this month to Saleh by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Obama pledged to double last year's $70 million in such aid.
In a letter implicitly aimed at Saleh and the U.S., 156 senior Yemeni clerics warned Thursday that they'd declare a religious war, or jihad, if foreign powers intervened directly or established foreign bases in Yemen, or if civilians were killed, as they've been in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"If there is any insistence from any foreign party or aggression or invasion against the country . . . then Islam considers jihad a duty," said the letter, which was read at a mosque in the capital, Sanaa. The signatories included Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, who once was close to Osama bin Laden.
Forging closer ties with Saleh also risks costing Obama some of the goodwill he reclaimed for the U.S. when he vowed in a June speech in Cairo that he'd preside over "a new beginning" in U.S. relations with the Islamic world.
Senior Yemeni officials, apparently aware of the potential for a backlash, said they have limits on cooperation with Washington.
"As long as what the United States does is to support the Yemeni government and our counterterrorism units, and provide us logistical support, share intelligence information and communication systems, I don't think it will go against our objectives," Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al Kirbi told McClatchy in a telephone interview.
The U.S. military and the CIA, which work with Saleh's security services, are expected to redouble intelligence-sharing and operational support for Yemen's effort to eradicate al Qaida, forged by the network's Yemeni and Saudi branches a year ago.
Several experts, however, said that security forces that have received U.S. training to fight al Qaida have been deployed against the southern secessionists and northern Shiite Muslim rebels and used brutal tactics.
"You are dealing with one of the more unreconstructed militaries in the region," said Michael Knights, a Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
The Counter-Terrorism Unit, an elite contingent that's commanded by one of Saleh's nephews and received training from U.S. and British special forces, is among those that have been used in the south and north, Knights said.
U.S. officials insisted that safeguards are in place to ensure that Yemen abides by its pledges to restrict U.S. counterterrorism assistance to combating al Qaida.
Britain, a leading provider of aid to Yemen, will host a Jan. 27 conference in London to coordinate counterterrorism efforts more closely with Saleh and the U.S., which will be represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Yemen, which supplied hundreds of men to fight the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, has long been a home to al Qaida operatives. They staged the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and attacks on Western targets, including a 2008 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.
Saleh, however, has been a mercurial ally. He cracked down on the terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but offered only grudging cooperation in the USS Cole investigation, and then turned his attention to a rebellion by northern Shiites known as Houthis.
Twenty-three al Qaida operatives, including the alleged key plotter in the Cole attack, are thought to have received inside help to tunnel out of a prison in February 2006.
Al Qaida's Yemeni franchise grew stronger under new leadership that included former Guantanamo Bay detainees who are believed to have guided last year's merger with the Saudi cell.
The U.S. already had intensified its cooperation with Saleh against al Qaida before the failed Christmas Day attack, with two U.S. airstrikes hitting al Qaida training bases earlier in December, and Yemen has since stepped up raids against the group.
It remains unclear, however, how Obama plans to balance closer ties with the regime against the risk of fueling anti-American sentiments, which experts said al Qaida already is exploiting to recruit new fighters and forge ties with tribes opposed to Saleh.
"The United States is increasingly shifting support to the Saleh regime at a time at which it is increasingly losing (popular) support," said April Alley, an expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "A popular view within Yemen is that the U.S. is supporting an increasingly unpopular regime and buttressing autocracy."
Some experts also said that Obama doesn't have a strategy to address the non-security ills that are helping transform Yemen into the kind of "failed state" in which al Qaida thrives.
It's the poorest Arab country, and the regime is rife with corruption. Saudi Arabia provides the regime with some $2 billion in annual aid, but much of the money allegedly goes into official pockets.
Illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition and disease are rampant among its 23 million people, more than half of whom are under age 20; the oil that's provided 75 percent of the government's revenues is running out; and Yemen may become the world's first country to exhaust its fresh water supplies.