Some counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen frozen for now

The US has halted some counter-terrorism operations in Yemen following a takeover by Iran-backed rebels.

The Old City of Sana’a, Yemen, on 24 November 2014. Picture: EPA.

WASHINGTON - The United States has halted some counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda militants in Yemen following a takeover of the country by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, U.S. officials said on Friday.

The collapse of the U.S.-backed government of Yemen on Thursday has left America's counter-terrorism campaign "paralysed", two U.S. security officials said, dealing a major setback to Washington's fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a potent wing of the militant network.

Three U.S. officials said the halt in operations included drone strikes, at least temporarily, following the abrupt resignation of the president, prime minister and cabinet amid mounting fears the Arab world's poorest country was veering toward civil war.

The U.S. move underscores another setback for President Barack Obama's Middle East policy and raises doubts about a counter-terrorism strategy that has relied on drone warfare and often shaky foreign partners to avoid sending large U.S. ground forces to battle militant threats far from American shores.

Many U.S. personnel work with Yemeni forces at the southern al-Annad airbase, an intelligence post for monitoring the Yemeni affiliate of al Qaeda, or AQAP, which claimed responsibility for attacks this month in Paris that killed 17 people.

Other U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the situation on the ground was fluid and described the halt as a temporary measure to assess chaotic conditions on the ground.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the United States wanted to continue its close counter-terrorism cooperation with Yemen and was committed to pursuing its strategy there.

"I don't have any policy changes to announce at this point," he told reporters.

The United States has killed dozens of suspected AQAP fighters and leaders with drone strikes and officials fear that the growing chaos in the country will give the group more space to plan and launch attacks on Western targets.

"It would mean that AQAP would have a much freer hand in parts of the country," said Lorenzo Vidino, author of "Al Qaeda in Europe" and an analyst at the Institute for the International Political Studies in Italy.

"That means more ability to plan attacks against the U.S."