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SANAA, YEMENIn this impoverished Arab nation, George W. Bush's America is at once the brute and the redeemer. In some eyes, it's a heavily armed belligerent that ignores Arab suffering in Iraq and Palestine; in other views, a generous nation, with the resources and a responsibility to lend a hand to developing states like this one.
Bush administration officials call Yemen a model for their new approach to the region. U.S. taxpayers have spent close to $300 million here, most of it in military aid, since 2001. Prompted by fears that Yemen was becoming both a source of and a haven for terrorism, the U.S. since 9-11 has become Yemen's largest development patronedging out European countries like Germany and Holland, established here for decades. The U.S. has also become a powerful military benefactor to Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, guaranteeing him strength in return for cooperation in the terror war.
The alliance, say U.S. officials, means Yemen is a willing and more able partner in the fight against Al Qaeda. "We're lucky here," said one U.S. embassy official, who has worked in other Arab capitals. "People don't come up to you here and say you're screwing up Palestine and Iraq. They want to know what we're doing for them. It's refreshing."
What the U.S. is doing for them ranges from a raft of high-profile development schemes targeting poor and rural areas, which American officials here claim will alleviate the conditions in which extremism thrives, to a number of democratization projects, aimed at boosting local political institutions, the national parliament, and role of Yemeni women in politics and society.
For their money, Bush officials expect more than hospitality. In recent weeks, they complained quickly to the Yemeni government after it imprisoned an opposition journalist. If the pressure is real, it represents a marked change from America's usual reluctance to offend regional allies.
Those who remain wary of the U.S. approachnot just Yemenis, but also individuals working for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the U.S. financesfear that any development strategy focused narrowly on fighting terror calls into question the wisdom, longevity, and ultimately the success of the Bush administration's efforts.
"Just take the debates between John Kerry and George Bush," said Majid al-Fahed, the director of a Yemeni NGO. "Kerry says not to exaggerate the fear of terrorism. But here, if the fear of terrorism decreases, the U.S. will lose interest." Many also charge that it's delusion to believe that Yemenis ignore the conflicts in nearby Arab countries.
"Support for Israel damages our work in the region," said one official working with a prominent American-funded NGO. "So does the way [the Bush administration] has mishandled Iraq." The official recalled that pictures broadcast after the capture of Saddam Hussein enraged even Yemenis who loathed the former dictator. "You cannot work here on reform, or encouraging democracy and development, without saying it's all undercut by U.S. foreign policy."
Hearts and minds
The road east from Sanaa to the central Yemeni town of Marib wanders first past the dusty cement factories on the outskirts of the capital, then lurches skyward to trace the clove-like crags of Garlic Mountain, before descending again into a valley of black volcanic rock, buffered on its edges by powdery sand dunes.
No fewer than 10 checkpoints dot this route, islands of government authority that create the illusion of control. Until recently, this area was a magnet for kidnappers, tribesmen who would press their grievances against the central government with their hostages, who were often foreigners.
Now an impressive new health center sits just off the main road, a half-hour west of Marib and just a few hours' drive from the spot where, in 2002, the CIA killed Al Qaeda militant Abu Ali al-Harithi and his fellow passengers, blasting them with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone.
A sign outside the clinic reveals it was financed by the "people of the United States of America." Inside, Sheikh Murdi Mabhooth Kuwalan, a handsome man with a booming voice, said he had expected a larger convoy from a visiting American. There had been a patient in the clinic, but they hurried him out to make room for what they assumed would be a big delegation.
Not long ago, such a mission made its way to this remote patch. Ambassador Edmund Hull, famous among Yemenis for his travels all over the country, visited Marib. "I met with him, and we had lunch together," said Sheikh Kuwalan, who is the brother of the district's big sheikh. "It was excellent. He tried to find out what projects we needed here. He related well with the people." One of the fruits of the meeting was the clinic, which the U.S. spent $350,000 to build. The medical director said the patients they treat here suffer mostly from diarrhea, respiratory problems, and malaria.
The clinic isn't finished yet, said Sheikh Kuwalan, and he has submitted a to-do list to the Americans, which includes building emergency facilities and separate quarters for women.
A U.S. embassy official said they were aware of the requests, and that in fact, the clinic, which is still "in progress," would probably serve mostly women. He added that they were considering a plan to convert the old health clinic, a forlorn mud structure, into a men's facility.