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Yemeni people walk in front of the main entrance of Old Sanaa city on Jan. 7, 2010. (AHMED JADALLAH/AHMED JADALLAH/REUTERS)
Yemeni people walk in front of the main entrance of Old Sanaa city on Jan. 7, 2010. (AHMED JADALLAH/AHMED JADALLAH/REUTERS)

Patrick Martin in Yemen

Yemeni elite dismiss idea of U.S. military intervention Add to ...

It was a most extraordinary gathering. The group, all men in their 50s or early 60s, has met twice a week, almost every week, since they were at school together. They take turns hosting the meeting, usually at their homes, and sit around chewing the fat for hours.

They also chew qat - a mildly narcotic leaf - as is the wont of most Yemeni men.

These men, however, are among Yemen's elite: heads of corporations and university departments, deputy ministers, a senior security official. The sight of them chewing qat, cheeks bulging as they hold the wad inside their mouths as long as possible, is an exotic backdrop to this rare glimpse into Yemeni power.

Reclining on cushions at one end of a sitting area that can accommodate 50, these eight men come from different walks of life but share a common perspective on the way their country is being perceived. They resent U.S. efforts to make Yemen the scapegoat for American intelligence failings that led to the near-bombing of a passenger airliner on Christmas Day and argue that they don't need, nor will they ever accept, U.S. military intervention in their campaign against al-Qaeda.

They are particularly irked, they said, by a reference U.S. President Barack Obama made in a speech Tuesday in which he likened Yemen to Afghanistan and nearby Somalia.

"This is nothing like those places," insisted one of the men. "We have laws; we have order."

"We have roads; we're more developed," said another. "This is not a failed state."

"We're at peace with our neighbours," chimed in a third.

"Yes, there are members of al-Qaeda in Yemen," acknowledged the security official. "And we know the name of every one of them. We also know how to handle them."

On Dec. 24, the day before the attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit, Yemeni forces launched an air strike against a reputed al-Qaeda hideout in the province of Shabwa, southeast of Sanaa, killing a reported 30 militants. It was the same location where members of al-Qaeda are said to have met last fall with the man indicted in the attempted bombing, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

"Sometimes we use violence," the security official in the group acknowledged. "But sometimes you have to be more delicate."

Many of the deeply religious Salafists in Yemen, he insisted, are not a problem. They are loyal to Yemen's President and are critical of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. "Only the extremists who become jihadists " are the problem, he said.

"We are an Islamic country," added another member of the group, a deputy minister. "We won't do anything to jeopardize freedom of that faith."

The CEO of a tech company explained that for 14 centuries Yemen has accommodated the Sunni and Shia strains of Islam alike, "without a religious war … until now."

It doesn't help Yemen's battle against al-Qaeda, the men agreed, that three Western countries - the United States, Britain and France - closed their embassies in Sanaa for up to three days this week, citing fear of an al-Qaeda attack.

"All that did was give the terrorists a victory," said the security official. "Something to cheer about and attract new members."

As for hints that the United States may feel compelled to intervene militarily in Yemen if Washington doesn't think Sanaa is up to the challenge, the group of eight was unanimous: The Americans had better think again.

"We will never allow it," said the security official. He recalled the U.S. investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000 in which 17 U.S. military personnel were killed. "The Americans arrived in full military gear, fully armed," he said. "We refused to allow them onshore until they removed the gear and dropped the weapons."

Unarmed military advisers are one thing, the security official said; fully equipped troops are something completely different, and are completely unwelcome.

The kind of intervention Yemen would welcome, a number of the men said, is development assistance. "Instead of wasting billions of dollars fighting in Afghanistan," said one of the CEOs, "they could put the money into Yemen to help feed and house people and build them proper hospitals."

"We are not a rich country," he said. "And it's those poor people, especially the ones away from the urban centres, who are turning to al-Qaeda."

As the extraordinary meeting of Yemeni gentlemen prepared to break up and depart the palatial home of their host, the men threw into the centre of the floor their stalks of qat, stripped clean of leaves, and spat into silver spittoons.

They said they hoped the world will finally pay attention to Yemen - just as long as it's the right kind of attention.



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