Yemen's instability: The U.S. friend has become a haven for al-Qaida

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Yemen is one of the most unstable countries in the Middle East, but it continues to play an important role in U.S. policy.

One of the U.S. diplomatic outposts among the 19 that were closed Aug. 5 when surveillance allegedly turned up information indicating a pending attack was the embassy in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, at the corner of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Another was the American Consulate General in Lahore, Pakistan. Yemen and Pakistan have been the countries most targeted by U.S. drone attacks.

The United States has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Yemen. Part of this is due to the instability and lawlessness that have caused Yemen to replace Afghanistan as a center of activity for extremist Islamist organizations, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It was also the homeland of the family of the late Osama bin Laden. Yemen's port, Aden, was the scene of the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 Americans.

Geographically and spiritually, Yemen is a wrap-around of Saudi Arabia, although it possesses nothing like the wealth of that monarchy, thus limiting its actions in places such as Egypt and Syria. Yemen, a nation of 24 million, is sharply divided into sectarian groups, 55 percent of whom are Sunni Muslim and 45 percent Shiite. Another cleavage began at its origins, when the country was divided into North and South Yemen. North Yemen was dominated by Saudi Arabia and kept on a somewhat pro-Western track. South Yemen, with its capital the port of Aden, remained under British control until 1967.

The two Yemens united in 1990 and were ruled by a dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, until he stepped down in 2011 and was succeeded by President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Since March the Hadi government has tried to heal some of the old wounds and build new unity after being opposed for years by Houthi Shiites and separatist Sunnis.

Although President Barack Obama received Mr. Hadi at the White House on Aug. 1 and has made efforts to boost his government, Yemen remains one of the most unsteady platforms in the Middle East for U.S. activity.

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