SAN'A, Yemen — For nearly a year, the United States has waged a fight against al-Qaida in Yemen, largely in deep secrecy. But the militants appear unfazed, and the fragile government of this poor Arab nation is pushing back against American pressure to escalate the fight.
The regime of Yemen's longtime leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is weak, dependent for its survival on the loyalty of unruly tribes and alliances with Muslim extremists. Yemeni authorities also fear too harsh a fight against al-Qaida will alienate a deeply conservative Muslim population where anti-American sentiment is widespread. As a result, the main Yemeni tactic is often to negotiate with tribes to try to persuade them to hand over fugitive militants.
Yemeni officials say Washington is pressing them to be more aggressive.
"The Americans are pushing hard and the government is resisting hard," said Yasser al-Awadi, a senior lawmaker close to Saleh, Yemen's leader of 32 years.
Al-Qaida militants have been building up their presence for several years in Yemen, finding refuge with tribes in the remote mountain ranges where the capital, San'a, has little control. The militants made a show of their international reach in December, when they allegedly plotted the failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a passenger jet over the U.S. The Obama administration branded al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula a global threat, and has stepped up its alliance with Saleh's regime to uproot it.
Around 50 U.S. military experts are in Yemen, training counterterrorism forces. Washington is funneling some $150 million in military assistance to Yemen this year for helicopters, planes and other equipment, along with a similar amount for humanitarian and development aid. San'a says its troops are fanned out around the country, hunting for militants.
There has been little visible progress.
In recent weeks, al-Qaida gunmen have carried out assaults in San'a, including a failed ambush on a top British diplomat. The government touted as a success a weeklong siege in September against an al-Qaida force in the town of Houta, but most of the militants escaped into nearby, impenetrable mountains.
And the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical Islamic cleric who Washington says has become a leader in the group, may have gone cold. The governor of Shabwa province, where Awlaki is believed to be hiding in the mountains, told the Associated Press he hasn't been sighted in two months.
The United States sees Awlaki as the most notorious English-speaking advocate of terrorism directed at America, and Washington has put him on a list of militants to kill or capture. U.S. investigators say e-mails link him to Maj. Nidal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist accused of last year's killings at Fort Hood, Texas, and Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused in the Christmas airline bombing attempt.
But in Yemen, only a few people have heard of him. And if he is captured, he will not be extradited to the United States because Yemen's constitution forbids it, Foreign Minister al-Qirbi has said.
"I don't think that what the Americans are saying about him is totally baseless, but I am confident that it is exaggerated," Shabwa's governor Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi said.