After bombing, Yemen’s Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi watches Unity Day ceremony from behind barrier

McClatchy NewspapersMay 22, 2012 

— Yemen’s top officials attended a somber ceremony commemorating the country’s 1990 unification Tuesday, a day after a suicide attack killed nearly 100 soldiers in one of the bloodiest days in the nation’s history.

Government sources said they’d identified the perpetrator of Monday’s suicide bombing, which targeted a rehearsal for the Unity Day parade. The bomber, they said, wore two shrapnel-packed suicide vests under a military uniform, allowing him to inflict maximum damage as he entered Sabain Square, the 10-lane road near the presidential palace where the attack took place.

Security was tight for Tuesday’s commemoration, which was moved from the site of the attack to an air force academy elsewhere in the capital. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi watched from behind a protective bulletproof shield.

Despite a visible increase in security, a tenuous sense of calm returned to Sanaa, though traffic was light and many shops and businesses were closed, owing to the national holiday. Monday’s attack marked the most significant outbreak of violence in the capital in months, shattering fragile hopes for progress that had taken hold since Hadi’s inauguration in February, which followed a yearlong, occasionally violent uprising against the rule of his predecessor, longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh

The Yemen-based group al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, dubbed by U.S. officials as “the most dangerous node in the global jihad,” claimed responsibility for the attack Tuesday, characterizing it as a response to an ongoing, U.S.-backed Yemeni military offensive against al Qaida-linked militants in the nation’s south.

The al Qaida claim was in addition to one Monday by an al Qaida-linked group, Ansar al Shariah, which cited the same rationale for the attack in a posting on a website.

Ansar al Shariah militants took advantage last spring of a growing power vacuum during the turmoil over calls for Saleh’s resignation to seize control of swaths of southern Abyan province, prompting the exodus of more than 100,000 civilians. With the leaders of Yemen’s defection-wracked military focused on the power struggle over Saleh, Ansar al Shariah’s grip on Abyan was largely unchallenged.

But when Hadi took power in February, he declared the battle against the militants to be a “national and religious duty,” and Yemeni troops, aided by American intelligence and air support, have made considerable gains against the fighters over the past two weeks, pushing them out of territory they’d held for much of the past year.

Composed mostly of Yemeni fighters, Ansar al Shariah has shown an apparent concern for restoring order as it’s moved to consolidate power, providing services to civilians as it enforces its strict interpretation of Islamic law. While the exact details of the group’s operational links with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula remain somewhat unclear, top Ansar al Shariah leaders have sworn allegiance to the al Qaida group’s leader, Nasir al Wuhayshi, a Yemeni citizen and former secretary to Osama bin Ladin, and to Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as al Qaida’s leader. Some analysts characterized the statement by al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula taking credit for Monday’s attack as evidence of the two groups’ significant overlap.

In the wake of Monday’s bombing, Hadi said the battle in Abyan would go on, though there was disagreement over what the audacious attack meant in terms of the strength of Ansar al Shariah. Some analysts said it was a sign that the group was increasingly desperate in the face of the government military campaign, while others cautioned that it was an indication of the group’s resilience and its ability to attack despite the campaign.

“The attack shows that this is going to be a much longer war than a few campaigns in a few weeks in Abyan,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst who teaches at Princeton University. “It’s one thing to push them out. Eradicating them will be far more difficult.”

Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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