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Mood Examined in Yemen - 2002-04-03

Arab anger toward the United States over its support of Israel is complicating U.S. efforts to build support for expanding its war on terrorism. The mood is examined in Yemen, where U.S. troops are to begin helping the army locate and defeat remnants of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization.

A series of large, noisy protests last month in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, demonstrated the biggest obstacle facing the United States and the Yemeni government in generating popular support for their joint campaign against terror.

Chants of "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" have become almost a daily chorus here since the violence between Israel and the Palestinians has escalated in recent months. And nearly everyone I spoke to seems to feel that the United States is to blame for the continuing conflict.

Shopkeeper Jamal Belal says he believes the United States wholeheartedly supports Israel's use of force against the Palestinian people. He says most Arab people are suspicious of the United States because it regards Palestinian freedom fighters as terrorists.

The director of the American Institute for Yemen Studies in Sana'a, Chris Edens, says such sentiments are growing in Yemen where peoples' opinions are largely shaped by regional television coverage of the war. He said, "You get here images of Palestinians holding up pieces of rockets that the Israeli Army has fired at peoples' homes which show 'Made in the USA.' It's hard for the United States to come off smelling sweet in those conditions."

Government officials in Yemen admit the crisis in the Middle East is creating a difficult backdrop to the start of military cooperation with the United States.

A 40-member U.S. advance team is already in place in Yemen, preparing the ground for up to 100 Special Forces soldiers whose date of arrival has not been announced. Like the more than 600 U.S. troops on a similar mission in the Philippines, the soldiers will help equip and train Yemeni security forces to hunt down al-Qaida terrorists, but will not participate in any actual fighting.

President Bush raised the idea of assisting Yemen to boost security in November, during a meeting at the White House with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In October 2000, a U.S. Navy ship in the port city of Aden was the target of a terrorist attack an attack believed to have been carried out by al-Qaida. Late last year, dozens of al-Qaida fighters captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan turned out to be Yemeni citizens.

The attack on the USS Cole and Yemen's growing reputation in the West as a haven for terrorists has devastated the nation's economy deepening poverty, which had been among the worst in the Arab world before September 11.

Yemen's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Al-Saidi says just as the United States needs Yemeni cooperation in its war against terror, Yemen needs U.S. backing to bring stability so that the country can recover. Mr. Al-Saidi said, "We believe what is being done in Yemen in terms of the campaign to root out terrorism is in the service of Yemen's national security. Yemen needs a lot of assistance, so we believe our interests do intersect with those of the United States."

But finding terrorists will take grassroots support that could be hard to come by in a country whose people hate Israel and remain highly suspicious of the United States.

The government has been trying to placate angry Yemenis by allowing them to stage anti-Israel and anti-American demonstrations. It has also stepped up its own public denouncements of Israel and praises of the Palestinian struggle.

But Sana'a businessman Ali Al-Saygal says he believes the government's decision to side with the United States at this time could backfire on President Saleh.

He says he is sure most Americans are very kind and friendly people. But as long as the U.S. government is seen as supporting Israel, there will never be support for the United States, or its war on terror, in Yemen.