SANA, Yemen — Yemeni security forces clashed with al-Qaida fighters Monday, killing two, the latest sign the embattled, longtime president is making good on vows that his country will cooperate with the United States in fighting the terror network.
Washington is embracing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the battle against al-Qaida's offshoot here, but it may be making a risky bet. The mercurial Saleh has held onto power for 31 years in this fragmented nation by relying on a system of manipulation — centralizing power within his family while buying off rivals and unruly tribesmen.
At times, that has meant forging alliances with Islamic extremists, and Saleh has frustrated U.S. officials in recent years by freeing jailed al-Qaida figures on promises they would not engage in terrorism. Several have broken those promises.
Observers warn that Saleh's rule is buckling under the weight of multiple crises, deep poverty and widespread corruption. The government has full control only around the capital, leaving much of the mountainous nation to armed tribes.
"Saleh is facing the most difficult time of his presidency," said Ali Seif Hassan, director of a Yemeni organization that mediates government-opposition dialogue. "Now he faces the decision whether to keep going as he has, all the way to becoming a failed state, or to make the hard choices to avoid that."
For the United States, the situation raises parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan, where Washington has had to go beyond military action to infuse economic help while pushing political reform on sometimes reluctant political leaders.
Last month, with U.S. help, Yemen carried out its heaviest strikes in years against al-Qaida hideouts, claiming to kill 30.
In Monday's clashes, Yemeni security forces attacked a group of militants moving through the area of Arhab, northeast of the capital. Among them was Nazeeh al-Hanaq, a senior figure on Yemen's most wanted list. He escaped, but two fighters with him were killed, the officials said.