By Adam Baron, McClatchy Foreign Staff
SANAA, Yemen — A series of U.S. government drone strikes in Yemen over recent days has brought into sharp relief divisions among the country’s rulers over how to rein in a program that they’ve long supported.
Only last week, a top Yemeni military official told McClatchy the government had placed the drone program “under review” in hopes of persuading the United States to limit strikes.
The most recent strikes — one Saturday morning in the central province of al-Bayda that hit a vehicle carrying more than a dozen suspected militants from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, another roughly 24 hours later in the reputed AQAP stronghold of al-Mahfad in the southern province of Abyan and a third Monday that killed three in Shabwah province — show that such a review has yet to limit the attacks.
Yemen’s government has long assented to the strikes — privately, in the case of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but openly under the country’s current leader, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took power in February 2012.
But a rising number of civilian casualties, particularly the December bombing of a wedding party that left 15 dead, has unnerved some Yemeni officials.
“We’ve told the Americans that they’ve been going about things the wrong way,” the high-ranking Yemeni military official said last week, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “When it comes to the current drone policy, there have been too many mistakes.”
The first American drone strike in Yemen is thought to have occurred in November 2002, killing senior al-Qaida leader Qa’id Sinan al-Harithi and five other suspected militants, including American citizen Kemal Darwish. The strikes continued to occur sporadically until late 2011, when they increased. According to estimates published by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based research center, there were at least 47 U.S. drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, and at least 25 the following year.
The strikes have long been controversial here — many Yemenis view them as violating their nation’s sovereignty — and popular opposition has only grown in the two years since the start of Hadi’s presidency. While American and Yemeni officials have defended them as key tools in the battle against AQAP, their frequency has left many Yemenis aghast. Local political analysts and tribal leaders in the provinces where they occur most often argue that the telltale buzz that precedes them terrorizes the local population, spurring many to sympathize with al-Qaida.
Such sentiments have only heightened in the wake of a spate of civilian casualties. After the December attack on the wedding party, Yemen’s Parliament voted unanimously for the drone strikes to halt.
That’s prompted Yemeni officials to open discussions with their American counterparts on how to limit attacks, said the high-ranking official. Yemeni officials familiar with the discussions have told McClatchy that they hope things will lead to the strikes focusing on higher-level targets, while Yemen would increase operations by elite military units. Yemen is also hopeful that the U.S. will increase assistance to its under-equipped air force, the officials said.
Still, the three days of attacks show the fragility of such goals. Saturday morning’s strike, for example, accurately hit an AQAP vehicle, according to government statements. Unfortunately, three civilian laborers who happened by in a separate vehicle were also killed.
“It would have been the perfect strike,” said another Yemeni official briefed on security matters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He said the militants targeted by the attack had long been under surveillance. “Those poor laborers (drove in) just after the bombs were dropped.”
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