SAN'A, Yemen — Yemeni security forces clashed with al-Qaida fighters Monday, killing two, the latest sign the embattled, longtime president is making good on vows that his country will cooperate with the United States in fighting the terror network.
Washington is embracing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the battle against al-Qaida's offshoot here, but it may be making a risky bet. The mercurial Saleh has held onto power for 31 years in this fragmented nation by relying on a system of manipulation – centralizing power within his family while buying off rivals and unruly tribesmen, Yemeni and American observers say.
At times, that has meant forging alliances with Islamic extremists, and Saleh has frustrated U.S. officials in recent years by freeing jailed al-Qaida figures on promises they would not engage in terrorism. Several top militants have since broken those promises.
Observers warn that Saleh's rule is buckling under the weight of multiple crises, deep poverty and widespread corruption. The government has full control only around the capital, leaving much of the mountainous nation to heavily armed tribes, some of which have given refuge to al-Qaida fighters.
"Saleh is facing the most difficult time of his presidency," said Ali Seif Hassan, director of a Yemeni organization that mediates government-opposition dialogue.
"Now he faces the decision whether to keep going as he has, all the way to becoming a failed state, or to make the hard choices to avoid that," he said.
For the U.S., the situation raises parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan, where Washington has had to go beyond military action to infuse economic help while pushing political reform on sometimes reluctant political leaders in hopes of undermining support for militants.
With an injection of U.S. counterterror aid and help for its security forces, Yemen's government has vowed in recent weeks to work with the U.S. in stamping out the estimated hundreds of al-Qaida fighters who have built up strongholds in the country's remote regions. Last month, with U.S. help, it carried out its heaviest strikes in years against al-Qaida hideouts, claiming to have killed 30 militants.
The renewed determination brought praise Monday from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "The United States commends Yemen for the recent actions it has taken to disrupt (al-Qaida) networks and we are reiterating our commitment to assist in those efforts," she said.
In Monday's clashes, Yemeni security forces attacked a group of al-Qaida militants moving through the mountainous area of Arhab, northeast of the capital, security officials said.
Among them was Nazeeh al-Hanaq, a senior figure on Yemen's most wanted list. He escaped, but two fighters with him were killed, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The battle came as the U.S. and British embassies in San'a were shut down for a second day Monday after threats of an imminent al-Qaida attack. Other Western embassies took similar steps Monday: The French and Czech embassies were closed to the public, while the Spanish and German embassies limited the number of visitors, their governments said.
The fight against the group took on greater urgency after the failed Christmas attempt to bomb an American passenger jet.
Over the weekend, President Barack Obama vowed that his administration has "made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government – training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al-Qaida terrorists."
The United States hiked its counterterrorism aid to Saleh's government, from none in 2008 to $67 million last year – an amount Washington says will double in 2010.
But Saleh's government says the United States and other nations must also provide economic aid to tackle deepening poverty that it says fuels support for al-Qaida among Yemen's swelling population of 22 million.
"The Yemeni government is capable of confronting acts of rebellion and destruction and solving all the internal problems," ruling party spokesman Tareq al-Shami said Sunday. But he said the international community must "set a vision for complete economic development to treat the sources of terrorism."
Many observers say Saleh's regime itself must change.
"The mode of rule that Saleh has mastered over 30 years is no longer sustainable. The Yemeni government is running out of money," Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, told The Associated Press.
Oil revenues – which provide 70 percent of the budget – plummeted last year, to $1.5 billion from January-October 2009 from $4.2 billion over the same period in 2008, according to the latest government figures.
The resource drain could undermine Saleh's ability to keep both supporters and opponents in line as he aligns closer to the Americans, who are viewed with deep suspicion by many Yemenis, against al-Qaida.
At the same time, the government is waging a costly war with Shiite rebels in the north and fighting separatists in the south.
Johnsen warned "the U.S. is focused entirely on al-Qaida in Yemen," when it should also be paying attention to the problems Saleh faces and the multiple factions he must balance.
Saleh, a military officer, rose to power in 1978 after two previous presidents were assassinated, one after only eight months in power. Many expected Saleh would not last long either.
But the 67-year-old leader cemented his hold by planting close relatives – including a son – in top military commands, and he has centralized political and economic power in his family.
He also struck alliances with Islamic extremists, known as Salafis. Many of the Salafis hold a similar fiercely anti-U.S. ideology as al-Qaida – and they have considerable influence in the government, military and economy.
Yemen is also the second most corrupt nation in the Arab world after Iraq, according to a 2009 report by the watchdog group Transparency International. Arms smuggling is rampant, providing weaponry to the country's tribes, many of which resent the government, saying they are left out of Saleh's patronage system.
Mohammed Abdul-Malik al-Mutawakkil, a political scientist at San'a University, is skeptical Saleh can change. If he cracks down too hard on al-Qaida, Salafis in the regime "will stand up against him," and if he moves against corruption it will alienate key supporters who benefit from it, al-Mutawakkil said.
Hassan, however, said American aid could prove a life saver for Saleh.
"It is a turning point for Yemen, and .... there are indications he will turn to the right side," Hassan said. "He has no other options. He has reached a dead end after all his maneuvering."