|Hillary Clinton is currently on a five-day tour of the Gulf Arab region [AFP]
Hillary Clinton has made a surprise visit to Yemen aimed at helping Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, tackle the country's fight against al-Qaeda.
In the first visit by a US secretary of state to the country in more than 20 years, Clinton said she also wanted to show the government in Sanaa, the capital, that Washington wanted more than just military ties.
Yemen currently faces a series of major threats, including a rise in al-Qaeda operations spreading beyond its borders, violence from southern secessionists, sporadic clashes with Shia fighters and widespread poverty.
Clinton, who is on a five-day tour of the Arabian peninsula, met Saleh for talks and lunch under heavy security at the presidential palace.
"We face a common threat by the terrorists in al-Qaeda," Clinton told reporters. "We are focused not just on short-term threats but on long-term challenges."
Clinton will likely have worked on damage control after leaked US diplomatic cables alleged Saleh admitted lying to his own people by pretending US military strikes against al-Qaeda were carried out by Yemeni forces.
Saleh briefly raised the matter, making "a very gentle reference" that he was surprised about the remarks released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, a senior US administration official said.
Speaking later at a town-hall meeting, Clinton said she was in Yemen to show the US shared its commitment in the fight against al-Qaeda and other groups who posed a threat in the country and beyond.
But she stressed it was a joint vision for a unified, stable, democratic and prosperous Yemen where civil society had the room to operate and al-Qaeda did not.
"Empowering the Yemeni people to solve your own problems is the most effective tool a society has," she said.
"Holding back civil society is the holding back the whole society."
Asked about political reforms there, Clinton said: "We see that Yemen is going through a transition. It could go one way or the other.
"It could go the right way or the wrong way. And we want to support those in Yemen who are trying to transition to a solid, peaceful, democratic system and voices can be heard.
Many analysts fear Yemen's problems are so serious that the country risks becoming a failed state like Somalia and allowing al-Qaeda to take a firm grip on both sides of the world's oil shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.
On December 25, 2009 a Nigerian passenger allegedly trained by the Yemeni-based Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was arrested for a suspected attempt to blow up a US airliner over Detroit.
AQAP has also taken credit for a foiled air cargo bomb plot in October, in which printer toner cartridges that had been rigged as bombs were shipped from Sanaa and, according to investigators, set to explode over the US.
"Yemen is increasingly a very strong partner in our counter-terrorism efforts," Clinton said in a briefing to reporters before undertaking the trip.
The secretary of state also said that "it's not enough to have military-to-military relations. We need to try to broaden the dialogue."
The US says it is running programmes aimed at increasing jobs, helping farmers, building schools and improving health care for Yemenis, who often lack adequate services in remote regions.
In 2010, Washington provided Yemen with $130m for development and $170m for military aid, according to a US official.