The United States has withdrawn the last of its personnel from Yemen, the U.S. State Department announced late Saturday, the latest in a string of reversals for American policy in the troubled Middle East.
In a statement emailed to reporters at around 10:30 p.m., Jeff Rathke, the director of the State Department’s press office, said the withdrawal was temporary. But it was unclear when conditions inside Yemen, where a multi-sided conflict rages, were likely to improve.
On Friday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a series of suicide mosque bombings that killed more than 130 worshipers in the capital, Sanaa.
Hailed only six months ago by President Barack Obama as a success for U.S. policy in the Middle East, Yemen has been sinking into chaos for months. It’s now the scene of a variety of overlapping conflicts – an internationally recognized government supported by Saudi Arabia is battling an Iranian-backed rebellion; a virulent al Qaida strain is fighting both the government and the rebels; adding to the mayhem, the Islamic State appears also to be a growing presence, making war not just on the government, but on the rebels and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The fight involves not only personal political animosities, but now pits Sunni Muslims against Shiite Muslims.
The Iranian-backed insurgency led by Houthi tribesmen, whose religious beliefs are close to Shiite Islam, overwhelmed Sanaa in January and put the U.S.-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, under house arrest. Last month, the Houthis installed a government, and Hadi escaped and fled to Aden, in the south. He vowed then to regain power. On Thursday, aircraft bombed his residence, though he escaped.
Meanwhile, the local al Qaida franchise, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has continued to fight both the government and the Houthis, while Yemen’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced from office in a U.S-backed agreement, remained an uncertain presence.
Then on Friday came the Islamic State mosque bombings. In claiming the mosque bombings, the Islamic State, a radical Sunni Muslim group, said it had targeted the mosques because the Shiites worshiping there were apostates.
The State Department statement said the United States had informed Hadi of the departure “as part of our close cooperation with the Yemeni government” and urged negotiations to end the violence.
The statement said the United States was “underscoring that President Hadi is the legitimate authority in Yemen and re-emphasize our support for his efforts to lead Yemen through crisis. We call upon the Houthis, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and their allies to stop their violent incitement that threatens President Hadi, Yemeni government officials, and innocent civilians.”
The statement did not say how many Americans departed from Yemen or whether they were both military and civilian. The United States closed its embassy operations in the capital in February. It made no mention of American military personnel who were based in Yemen to help coordinate drone strikes on AQAP leaders.
Yemeni officials earlier Saturday had told the Associated Press that the United States had evacuated perhaps as many as 100 troops from the al Annad air base in southern Yemen. That evacuation came after AQAP forces captured the nearby city of al Houta.
On Sept. 10, Obama pointed to Yemen as a success as he announced that the United States was expanding its aerial war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. After the Houthis seized Sanaa in January, U.S. officials said they expected to continue drone strikes against al Qaida targets. It was not clear Saturday whether that would be possible after the evacuation of U.S. personnel.
The embassy in Sanaa is the second U.S. diplomatic post in the region abandoned in the past year. In July, the United States evacuated its embassy in Tripoli, Libya, as violence worsened there. The U.S. called that departure temporary as well, though violence in Libya has only worsened in the months since.
As in Yemen, the Islamic State is a growing presence in Libya. In January, the Islamic State beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach, and has since seized Sirte, a coastal city best known as the hometown of the late Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi.