SANA'A // Hillary Clinton made the first trip to Yemen by a US secretary of state in more than 20 years yesterday to call for tougher military action against al Qa'eda.
Mrs Clinton also pledged her support for political reform and dialogue to ensure that Yemen does not become a failed state.
"We face a common threat posed by the terrorists and al Qa'eda, but our partnership goes beyond counterterrorism," America's top diplomat said after two hours of talks with the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
"We are focused not just on short-term threats but long-term challenges," she said, with Mr Saleh standing beside her. "We support an inclusive political process that will in turn support a unified, prosperous, stable, democratic Yemen."
Relations between Yemen and the United States have been strained by Washington's desire for a quicker pace of economic and political reforms, which it hopes will slow recruitment by militants belonging to a Yemen-based al Qa'eda affiliate.
Those reforms appeared to suffer a setback this month when Yemen's parliament, which is controlled by Mr Saleh's political party, gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment that eliminates presidential term limits, which would allow the Yemeni leader to stay in power after 2013.
The dialogue between Yemen and the US has also been complicated by the disclosure of secret US diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks website. One of those documents reported that a senior Yemeni official had lied to parliament by denying that the US was involved in airstrikes against terror targets.
One cable quoted Mr Saleh as telling General David Petraeus, then commander of US forces in the Middle East: "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."
Another cable said Mr Saleh offered unfettered access to Yemeni territory for US counterterrorism operations.
After the disclosure of the cables, Mr Saleh refused to receive a US diplomat in protest. He also refused to meet high ranking military officials.
Mrs Clinton's visit comes as threats from al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen's al Qa'eda affiliate, are on the rise.
The organisation claimed responsibility this month for 50 operations in different parts of Yemen in the last five months of 2010 and is suspected to be behind the recent attacks that killed more than 12 soldiers in the south.
Mrs Clinton is the highest level US official to visit Yemen since Dick Cheney, then vice president, visited in 2002. Upon landing in the Yemeni capital, Mrs Clinton said the US and Yemen see eye-to-eye on dangers posed by extremists.
"Yemen recognises the threat and has become increasingly committed to a broad-based counterterrorist strategy," she told reporters. Mrs Clinton said she wanted her trip to underscore US support for the country and convince Yemenis that Washington wants more than military ties.
She indicated that the US wants to address the underlying causes of extremist violence, such as poverty, social inequality and political divisions.
"We are committed to a balanced approach toward Yemen, which includes social, economic and political assistance," Mrs Clinton said.
Later, at a meeting of civil society leaders in the capital, she underlined America's stake in defeating Islamist militants.
"They have sought, more than once, to attack our country," she said. "Stopping such threats would be a priority for any nation, and it is a priority for us."
Addressing questions about the future of democracy in Yemen, Mrs Clinton said the US supports political dialogue and consensus on the election the government has set for April amid strong objection from opponents who want reforms implemented first. "Our strong message is that we support a peaceful political process and the efforts of Yemenis to take responsibility in solving their problems", she told about 100 members of the civil society at the Movenpick hotel.
Participants in the meeting were pleased by Mrs Clinton's remarks.
"The meeting was great. She accepted to come to Yemen and listen not only to President Saleh but also the people," said Farah al Wazeer, a 20-year-old student. "I think this visit will have an impact both here and in the US."
"The most important thing about this meeting is that she listened to the opinion of other people about the main issues in Yemen," said Mohammed al Makaleh, an opposition politician.
Yemen has been the site of numerous anti-US attacks by al Qa'eda and its affiliates dating back to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors.
President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, called President Saleh last month asking him to take "forceful" action against al Qa'eda.
Meanwhile, al Qa'eda have been engaged in recent months in hit-and-run attacks on Yemeni forces.
The attacks are thought to be partly inspired by a US-born cleric, Anwar al Awlaki, who is believed to be hiding in Yemen and is subject to a US kill-or-capture order.
Yemen is beset not only by al Qa'eda. The government faces a secessionist movement in the south and armed rebels in the north.
In the past five years, US military assistance to Yemen has totalled about US$250 million (Dh918m). US officials say military aid to the country would reach $250 million in 2011 alone.
With US help, Yemen is setting up provincial anti-terrorism units to confront al Qa'eda in its heartland, broadening the scope of its operations with highly trained, US-funded anti-terrorism units going into havens not attacked before.
The new units will operate in Shabwa, where Mr al Awlaki is believed to be hiding, as well as in the mountainous central Marib province, in Abyan and the eastern province of Hadramawt, where many al Qa'eda operatives are taking refuge and where the government has little control.
Yemen is the Arab world's poor nation, with a per-capita output of about $1,100 a year. It also has one of the world's most acute water shortages, the World Bank says.
With additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press and Bloomberg