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Al-Qaida taking advantage of Yemen turmoil, US defense chiefs say

Defense Secretary Ash Carter gives a speech at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul on April 10, 2015. Carter talked about North Korea, the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system and the South China Sea.

ARMANDO R. LIMON/STARS AND STRIPES

By JAMES ROSEN | McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS) | Published: April 16, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune Content Agency) — The top U.S. defense officials acknowledged Thursday that al-Qaida militants in Yemen who threaten the United States are taking advantage of turmoil there exacerbated by Saudi-led airstrikes that Washington supports.

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, toed a thin line between defending Saudi Arabia as a longtime ally and recognizing that its three-week-long bombing campaign in Yemen has created opportunities for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, the terror group’s Yemen-based affiliate.

Carter, who succeeded Chuck Hagel as Pentagon chief two months ago, said he was aware of reports that AQAP fighters Thursday captured a seaport, an airport and an oil terminal in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of nine mainly Sunni Muslim nations, launched airstrikes March 26 against Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels who had taken over key Yemeni cities, forcing its U.S.-supported president to flee and American diplomatic and military personnel to leave the country.

“Saudi Arabia is a longstanding friend and ally of ours,” Carter said. “And we have undertaken to help them protect themselves and their own border.”

Carter added: “The objective there is to restore a political process there in which a legitimate government can be established in Yemen and things can settle down there. That’s good for the people of Yemen, first and foremost. It’s good for Saudi Arabia that doesn’t need this on its southern border. And … it’s good for us, among other reasons, because of AQAP’s presence in Yemen.”

The United States’ involvement in the Saudi-led Yemen initiative has steadily increased. It’s providing daily aerial refueling for the coalition’s bombers and now has 20 military and intelligence personnel at a “joint fusion center” in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Dempsey said Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, the Tampa, Fla.-based headquarters for American military engagement in the Middle East, was in Riyadh on Thursday “for a daylong consultation with the Saudi leadership on their campaign plan.”

However, in a break with Saudi leaders, Dempsey said the Houthi rebels in Yemen are not mere proxy forces for Iran.

“To the question about the degree of control that Iran exerts over the Houthis, if you look back at the history of their relationship, they have not exerted control in the same way that they exert control over Lebanese Hezbollah, for example,” Dempsey said.

The United States has shuttered its embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and pulled out military forces who had helped buttress President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has taken refuge in Riyadh. But President Barack Obama has not authorized evacuations of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 civilian Americans from the embattled country.

In Iraq, despite the new Islamic State offensive in Ramadi, Baiji and elsewhere, following its recent defeat in Tikrit, Dempsey commended the security forces of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who met with Obama and Carter this week during a visit to Washington.

“The government of Iraq has made gains, and trends are moving in the right direction,” Dempsey said. “There remains a lot of hard work in integrating their militias under state command and control as Iraq continues to prepare its forces to sustain momentum against ISIL,” the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State group.

Carter said he and other American leaders insisted in their meetings with al-Abadi that he adopt a more inclusive approach as the price of continued U.S. support, and they lauded what they said are signs that he is complying.

“It’s important that all forces acting against ISIS in Iraq be under the control of the central Iraqi government,” Carter said. “That is the principle that we certainly adhere to, and that’s the principle that the prime minister has.”

Carter added that some Shiite militias in Iraq are fighting under state control but that others are operating on their own.

©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.