February 2012, Week 4


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Wed, 22 Feb 2012 22:58:29 -0500
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Washington's War in Yemen Backfires

Jeremy Scahill F
ebruary 14, 2012

This article appeared in the March 5-12, 2012 edition of
The Nation.

Gen. Mohammed al-Sumali sits in the passenger seat of his
armored Toyota Land Cruiser as it whizzes down the
deserted highway connecting the Yemeni port city of Aden
to Abyan province, where Islamist militants have overrun
the provincial capital of Zinjibar. Sumali, a heavy-set
man with glasses and a mustache, is the commander of the
25th Mechanized Brigade of the Yemeni armed forces and the
man charged with cleansing Zinjibar of the militants.
Sumali's task carries international significance: retaking
Zinjibar is seen by many as a final test of the flailing
regime of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the
unpopular ruler who has deftly exploited the US
government's perception of him as an ally in the fight
against terrorism to maintain his grip on power.

The only real traffic on this road consists of refugees
fleeing the fighting and heading toward Aden, and military
reinforcements moving toward Zinjibar. Sumali did not want
to drive out to the front lines on this day and tried to
dissuade the journalists in his office. "You know there
could be mortars fired at you," he tells us. Twice, the
militants in Zinjibar tried to assassinate the general in
that very vehicle. There is a bullet hole in the front
windshield, just above his head, and another in his side
window, the spider web cracks from the bullets' impact
clearly visible. When we agree not to hold him or his men
responsible for what might happen to us, he relents, and
we pile in and take off.

As we ride along the coast of the Arabian Sea, past stacks
of abandoned mortar tubes, Russian T-72 tanks dug into
sand berms and the occasional wandering camel, General
Sumali gives his account of what happened on May 27, 2011.
On that day, several hundred militants laid siege to
Zinjibar, thirty miles northeast of the important southern
city of Aden, killing several soldiers, driving out local
officials and taking control within two days. Sumali
attributes the takeover to an "intelligence breakdown,"
explaining, "We were surprised in late May with the flow
of a large number of terrorist militants into Zinjibar."
He adds that the militants "raided and attacked some
security sites. They were able to seize these
institutions. We were surprised when the governor, his
deputies and other local officials fled to Aden." As the
Yemeni military began fighting the militants, General
Sumali tells me, men from Yemen's Central Security Forces
fled, abandoning heavy weaponry as they retreated. The
CSF, whose counterterrorism unit is armed, trained and
funded by the United States, is commanded by President
Saleh's nephew Yahya. (A media outlet associated with the
militants reported that they seized "heavy artillery
pieces, modern antiaircraft weapons, a number of tanks and
armored transports in addition to large quantities of
different kinds of ammunition.")

Sumali says that as his forces attempted to repel the
attack on Zinjibar in early June, they were attacked by
the militants using the artillery seized from the CSF
units. "Many of my men were killed," he says. The Islamist
fighters also conducted a series of bold raids on the base
of the 25th Mechanized on the southern outskirts of
Zinjibar. In all, more than 230 Yemeni soldiers have been
killed in battles with the militants since last May.
"These guys are incredibly brave," the general concedes,
speaking of the militants. "If I had an army full of men
with that bravery, I could conquer the world."

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