WASHINGTON – The U.S. military wants to significantly increase its equipment and training aid to Yemen in 2011, proposing as much as $250 million to help the struggling country battle al-Qaida-linked extremists within its borders, according to U.S. officials.
The increase in funding was recommended well before last week's failed mail bombings, which U.S. officials believe were linked to the terror group's branch in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Military aid to Yemen in 2010 was $155 million, and the 2011 recommendation is expected to be well in excess of $200 million, depending on final negotiations between top administration officials.
Despite the fact that the funding recommendation from senior military leaders was made before the mail bomb plot, the Yemen aid proposal underscores the growing terror threat from Yemen and the need to bolster that country's ability to track and battle militants.
U.S. administration officials spoke about the aid recommendations on condition of anonymity because no final decisions have been made.
The exact funding has not been decided because Congress has yet to finalize any of the 2011 spending bills. Any specific foreign military spending recommendations must be approved by the defense secretary in coordination with the secretary of state.
The funding could be further complicated by the Republican election victories if they lead to any changes or cuts to the 2011 military spending bill. Under the proposed legislation, the Pentagon would spend $500 million overall on foreign military aid, up from $350 million in 2010.
The $155 million pledged to Yemen in 2010 was allocated for helicopters, planes and other equipment. But many of the big-ticket items are moving through the contracting process and have not yet been delivered.
A senior Yemeni official briefed on the aid details said the equipment is in the pipeline. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Two Chicago-bound packages shipped from Yemen were intercepted Friday in Britain and Dubai after authorities were tipped that they contained bombs. Officials believe that cell phones attached to the explosives were designed to detonate when the planes were airborne.
The U.S. has been growing more concerned about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula over the past two years. Those fears were realized on Christmas Day 2009 when, authorities allege, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner.
The attack was later linked to al-Qaida leaders in Yemen, including radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Since then, the U.S. has redoubled its efforts to help Yemen target the insurgents.
Senior Obama administration officials have said they are focusing on broader economic and governmental problems in Yemen, targeting the confluence of factors that led to instability and the rise of the al-Qaida terror group.
Overall U.S. assistance to Yemen in 2010 was nearly $300 million, including roughly $150 million from the State Department for economic development and other government aid.
In a phone call this week with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, President Barack Obama said the aid is part of a broader, more comprehensive strategy to promote security as well as economic and political development. The U.S., Obama said, is committed to building the capacity of Yemen's counterterrorism forces as well as improving the lives of the Yemeni people.
The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen is threatened by plummeting water and oil resources and an exploding population of 22 million. Almost half the population is 15 or younger, and many live on less than $2 a day.
In addition to the threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the country is battling Shiite Hawthi rebels in the north and a secessionist threat in the south, which has provided fertile ground for al-Qaida's recruiting efforts.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.