ADEN, Yemen — The lunchtime scene here Friday at the Sailor's Club reflected the fear, hope and sorrow that the Cole will leave behind this weekend when a U.S. heavy tug is scheduled to maneuver the crippled U.S. warship to a Norwegian salvage vessel.
Business has been brisk at the restaurant, a half-century-old British colonial relic whose view of the damaged Cole has drawn crowds. Yet waitresses Angela Ali Said and Jasmina Sharif seemed deeply torn about the impending departure of the guided missile destroyer.
The tips have been good since hundreds of U.S. officials, technicians and television crews came here after the Oct. 12 terrorist attack. But Ali Said, 26, said she hasn't been able to sleep well for fear that the ship's arsenal could explode and level the city. And for 18-year-old Sharif, the Cole has been a daily reminder of the horror visited upon her city and the uncertainty about its future.
"When the ship leaves," Sharif said, "business will be zero again." Perhaps even worse than before, if that is possible, both for the aging restaurant on Aden's Steamer Point and for Yemen as a whole.
The sudden influx of Americans and their dollars rekindled the hopes of a people and their government that Aden's strategic port could someday become the commercial magnet it was through more than a century of British rule, when it drew the world's sailors, traders and navies in what one Yemeni old-timer called "the golden days of Aden."
Yet the current American presence will be sharply reduced once the Cole is gone. Yemenis fear that the bombing, which killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 39, could serve only to isolate and impoverish them further.
The U.S. and several European navies have suspended their port calls in Aden since the bombing. A senior U.S. official this week called the moratorium "open-ended," adding that the final decision on future refueling here "will be based on a number of factors, including [the outcome of] the investigation" into the attack.
The future of the refueling stops are crucial not only to Aden and southern Yemen--an independent state until a decade ago--but to the Yemeni government's hopes of improving economic conditions in one of the Arab world's poorest nations.
"It's a natural concern of anybody," added the U.S. official, who asked not to be identified. "This is one of Yemen's primary economic resources."
The 8,600-ton Cole is scheduled to leave the port this weekend. About 20 miles from Aden it will meet up with the Blue Marlin, a 712-foot vessel that will partly submerge under the warship, lift it out of the water and carry it to Norfolk, Va.
For Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. and European naval stops have been a critical, though largely symbolic, component in opening to foreign investment.
Challenged to explain the American refueling stops to an Arab television network reporter, who suggested in an interview this week that Yemen was becoming a U.S. base, Saleh downplayed his nation's role: "It is exactly like the service provided by a gasoline station."
But the Yemeni president has aggressively sought U.S. and European investors in recent years--especially to provide jobs and benefits in the south, where feelings of hostility toward the north still run high after several secessionist wars. And the occasional presence of powerful warships in the region's largest city has produced an aura of security and stability in a land better known for tribal kidnappings of tourists and oilmen.
Saleh, whose country is dependent on its limited crude oil exports for income, is open to almost any kind of investment from the West that will provide jobs. He has nurtured closer ties with the United States, working with senior American military officers and diplomats to secure the refueling agreement and a new U.S. fuel depot as first steps in an emerging relationship that the U.S. ambassador here insists is untarnished by the bombing.
"We have been working well with the Yemenis," Ambassador Barbara Bodine told reporters here Thursday. After meeting with Saleh for the fourth time since the bombing, she added: "It has not damaged the relationship. If that was one of the goals of the people who did the attack on the Cole, they have failed."
Bodine sounded optimistic, though a U.S. congressional committee grilled retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, who signed the Aden refueling agreement, and heard testimony that the Pentagon allegedly had ignored warnings of potential terror plots here.
"There are hearings, and there are going to be questions asked. That is part of the process," she said. "But I do not believe there has been a fundamental deterioration or damage to the official relationship between the two countries."
A Yemeni analyst added that the large U.S. contingent here during the last two weeks has advanced pro-American sentiment among a people that spent more than two decades under a Marxist regime--a people awaiting with nostalgia a renaissance of the more prosperous era of British rule.
"It's just basic economics," said the analyst, who asked not to be identified. "People are simply worried about putting food on the table . . . and when they see the free-spending Americans, they hope there will be a return to the past."
And on that point, the waitresses at the Sailor's Club heartily agreed.
But for the moment--in the aftermath of the bombing and an ensuing Yemeni security crackdown that has included traffic checkpoints, travel restrictions and a massive dragnet for suspects--Jasmina Sharif concluded: "When the ship goes, at least there will be peace."