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Yemeni President Proposes Conditioned Talks with al-Qaida

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Tribal leader Sheikh Ghaleb al-Ashdaa of the Murad, and his son Khaled
al-Ashdaa, in Sana'a. Both men favor government negotiations with
Yemeni militants. January 10, 2010.

Tribal leader Sheikh Ghaleb al-Ashdaa of the Murad, and his son Khaled al-Ashdaa, in Sana'a. Both men favor government negotiations with Yemeni militants. January 10, 2010.

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh says he is willing to negotiate with al-Qaida members who renounce violence and lay down their weapons. The offer goes against the aims of the United States and other nations that are seeking to help Yemen vanquish the local al-Qaida off-shoot.

Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh says talks are possible with any members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who "return to reason."

In an interview with Abu Dhabi Television, Mr. Saleh vowed the military would continue to go after militants who do not give up their fight. But he added that dialogue is the best way to deal with those who do.

The Obama administration recently decided to stop releasing any more Yemenis from its Guantanamo military prison after Yemen-based al-Qaida members claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airplane last month. The suspect was in Yemen before the attack and Yemeni officials say he met with al-Qaida members during his stay.

Even before that, U.S. officials expressed concerns that Yemenis released earlier from Guantanamo may have returned to a life of extremism.

Yemen's military, with U.S. assistance, has been conducting operations against what it says are al-Qaida targets in Arhab and Shabwa Provinces. Sana'a says it has killed dozens of terrorists in recent weeks. But there are conflicting reports on the identity of those killed, with witnesses saying at least some of them had no connection to al-Qaida.

Part of the problem is that fighters in Yemen appear to have shifting patrons and allegiances.

Khaled Ghaleb al-Ashdaa is assistant to his father, Sheikh Ghaleb al-Ashdaa, tribal leader of the Murad in Marib and Shabwa Provinces. Speaking beside his father at their home in Sana'a, the son says many of those labelled al-Qaida are former supporters of the government.

The younger al-Ashdaa says they are fighters who helped the government in the 1994 war against southern secessionists and that, earlier, they heeded the U.S. call to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Khaled al-Ashdaa believes negotiations are a better approach. He says al-Qaida, or what is called al-Qaida, are people who have problems that the government can solve. But he says it has become an excuse for the state to call someone al-Qaida in order not to solve those problems.

Asked what those demands would be, neither father nor son could answer. But the elder al-Ashdaa says the state provides virtually nothing for his people who, he says, live as if in the Stone Age.

There is no question that some bona-fide al-Qaida fighters have been in Yemen for years. Members bombed the USS Cole in 2000 and a French oil tanker two years later. They also attacked the U.S. embassy in Sana'a in 2008.

Western military analysts believe al-Qaida members who have been pushed out of Afghanistan and Pakistan have found a safe haven in the republic. Estimates of their numbers range up to several hundred.

And from what is known of al Qaida, dedicated to bringing down its enemies and creating a strict Islamic state, little, if anything, is open to negotiation.

But a general strike Sunday in the south of the country highlights another problem of distinguishing between al-Qaida and less militant opponents of the government.

The strike was called to highlight grievances that the region, formerly an independent state, is slighted by the government in the north. Government officials dismiss the southern opposition, and a renewed secessionist movement, as the work of criminals and other outlaws who must be stopped militarily.