Yemen's crisis worsens as president stays away

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 15, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — Yemenis took to the streets Friday in dueling pro- and anti-government demonstrations, spurred by days of reports that embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh could return from medical treatment in Saudi Arabia next week.

But by day's end, a ruling party official had quashed those rumors, saying that Saleh wouldn't return until his doctors give the OK. The announcement only deepened the mystery surrounding the fate of Saleh, a onetime U.S. ally against terrorism whose six-week absence has seen worsening violence and economic uncertainty in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation.

On Friday, at least 10 Yemenis were killed in Taiz, the second largest city, in ongoing clashes between government forces and dissident tribesmen, news services reported.

This week saw the first release of images of Saleh since he was injured in a June 3 attack on his compound. Yemeni state television broadcast two short videos of the president, the first showing him rigid and weak, the second showing him conducting a meeting, looking more active.

Still, Saleh's injuries were plainly apparent. He remains seated in both videos, with his hands covered and his face showing considerable burns.

There has been increased international pressure for Saleh to step down after nearly five months of protests calling for his ouster. After days of meetings this week with Saleh and other top government and opposition figures, the deputy U.S. national security adviser, John Brennan, again publicly urged the president to sign a deal brokered by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council under which he'd leave power in exchange for legal immunity.

But Brennan's visit had few tangible results. Despite repeated promises, Saleh has walked away from signing the deal three times.

Pro-government figures have long maintained that Saleh plans to return to power as soon as his health permits. In the past week, members of the regime have reiterated that Saleh has no plans to leave office, with some going as far as to claim that the president would return on July 17, the 33rd anniversary of his rise to power.

But in Sanaa's Change Square, the sprawling sit-in that's been the center of anti-government demonstrations since February, activists reiterated that they'd continue their protests whether or not Saleh returns. Many in the square still hold that the president's return is unlikely.

"Even if he did look better in the second video, we still don't think he will come back," said Dalia Talal Dali, a university student. "Yemen certainly doesn't want him back."

The Obama administration initially backed Saleh, not wanting to jeopardize a nascent counterterrorism relationship in a country where a leading al Qaida affiliate has plotted attacks on the United States, including the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

Yemen is also home to a prominent al Qaida ideologue, Anwar al Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical preacher that the Obama administration has targeted for assassination.

Prior to the demonstrations, Saleh was widely seen as a stabilizing force in the fractious country, a mosaic of competing factional, tribal and regional interests. Besides the United States, which had pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in counterterrorism funding, Saudi Arabia saw Saleh as an important ally in maintaining security along the kingdom's southern border.

In the past months, however, the government's ability to maintain stability appeared to dissipate. Yemen's already weak economy is buckling under rampant inflation and severe gas, electricity, water and currency shortages.

In many parts of the country, government control appears to have unraveled. Fighting between pro-government forces and what they describe as al Qaida-affiliated militants in the southern province of Abyan has continued for months. Taiz, a hotbed of anti-government sentiment, has seen nearly daily clashes between government forces and dissident tribesmen who have declared themselves the "protectors" of demonstrators.

Clashes also have been reported in the district of Arhab, outside Sanaa, while factional fighting has spread to areas near Yemen's border with Saudi Arabia.

Yet amid louder calls for a power transfer, pro-Saleh officials are digging in their heels.

In an op-ed published in Thursday's Washington Times, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al Qirbi hit out at Saleh's opponents, stating that the president would only leave power through the ballot box.

"Only a government that has the confidence and support of the people will have the mandate and the authority to make and implement the hard decisions that will be necessary to secure Yemen's future," he said. "That mandate can only be delivered by democratic means through fresh elections."

Still, however, many analysts maintain that the United States and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have important interests in Yemen, still can prevent further violence and destabilization.

"The United States and Saudi Arabia have done a poor job of moving Yemen away from Saleh. So far we've had six months of state fragmentation and an increased humanitarian crisis. It would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic," said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University. "Yet, Yemen's collapse is not a foregone conclusion. There is still much that can be done."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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