Latest word from Yemen's ill president doesn't allay tensions

08/02/2011 4:17 PM

08/07/2011 11:03 PM

SANAA, Yemen — When Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia on June 5 after suffering severe injuries in a bomb attack on his compound, many in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation breathed a sigh of relief.

Anti-government protesters celebrated what they thought was the end of Saleh's 33-year rule, and hopes were raised that months of uncertainty, scuttled power-transfer negotiations, a worsening economic crisis and increasing violence were coming to an end.

Yet, nearly two months later, Yemen's political crisis appears as intractable as ever, while daily life remains far from returning to normal. While the capital has retained a tenuous calm, clashes between government forces and armed foes continue across the country.

Throughout Yemen, access to basic utilities such as electricity and water remains sporadic, while rising prices and economic instability continue to cripple many, even as Yemenis begin observing the usually festive month of Ramadan this week.

Indeed, there seems to be no way out of the deep uncertainty in a country that's considered crucial to U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

It's been nearly 60 days since Saleh left, and according to some interpretations of the Yemeni Constitution, elections for a new leader are due if the current one is incapacitated that long. But Saleh's powerful relatives retain control of the nation's best-equipped troops, and his allies have rejected arguments that his office is vacant, offering vague assurances of his return.

"The burn injuries of President Saleh do not mean he is incapacitated," Abdo al Janadi, the deputy minister of information, said Monday at a news conference. He reiterated that Vice President Abd-el-Rab Mansour al Hadi remained the acting president, although Hadi is nearly universally dismissed as a weak figure.

Over the weekend Saleh issued a statement from Saudi Arabia, urging his opponents to engage in dialogue and calling for the end of demonstrations against his rule.

It was a rare statement; he's spoken publicly only once since he left the country, addressing the nation by video four weeks ago. While Saleh appeared weak and visibly injured in that video — during which he acknowledged having eight operations for his injuries — he appeared more vibrant days later in footage that was released of him meeting John Brennan, the chief White House counter-terrorism adviser.

Speculation over Saleh's health has only grown since then, especially after he decided to forgo delivering his statement personally Sunday; an anchor on state television read it instead.

In it, Saleh exhorted his opponents to restart talks on a U.S-backed power-transfer deal brokered by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. But Saleh has refused three times to sign the deal, which offers him legal immunity in exchange for his exit from power and calls for elections within 60 days.

Leaders of Yemen's opposition parties, which inked the deal in May, have refused further negotiations until the president signs it.

Other figures in the ruling government have expressed support for a deal but rejected some of this proposal's provisions. Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al Kirbi said recently that the timetable for elections was "unrealistic" and would lead to a power vacuum.

Before this year's demonstrations, the Obama administration saw Saleh — who famously likened leading fractious Yemen to "dancing on the heads of snakes" — as a stabilizing force in the nation, the base for al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted numerous attacks on American and Saudi targets. It's also home to Anwar al Awlaki, a radical Islamist and American citizen who, though little-known in Yemen, is thought to have inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan, who faces the death penalty on charges of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.

In recent years Saleh had edged closer to Washington, cultivating a tenuous friendship by permitting American drone strikes on Yemeni soil while benefiting from significant U.S. military aid. But after months of demonstrations against Saleh this year, the Obama administration decided to back a plan to edge him from power.

As unrest continues, many in the international community fear that extremist groups could take advantage of a power vacuum. Government forces have been unable to achieve victory after weeks of fighting in the southern Abyan province, where al Qaida-associated militants are said to control of swaths of territory.

Since Saleh left, the United States, Britain, Germany and other nations have stepped up negotiation efforts and dispatched envoys to the region to push for a transfer-of-power plan. But after months of failed negotiations, many Yemenis have grown weary of international intervention. As clashes continue, civilian casualties mount and the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen, many Yemenis accuse foreign actors of colluding with Saleh as he attempts to maintain power.

"The American government is against us. The Saudis are against us," said Ibrahim al Kulani, an accountant who was taking part in anti-government demonstrations. "They apparently prefer keeping their relationship with one man to working with a democratic Yemen."

Some of the government's opponents have upped their rhetoric against the president. More than 750 tribal opponents of Saleh, led by Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribal federation, have formed the Alliance of Yemeni Tribes.

Ahmar, a former Saleh ally, has become the face of tribal opposition to the president since clashes in May between government forces and tribesmen in the neighborhood that surrounds his house. A statement issued Saturday at the inaugural meeting, held at the base of defected army Gen. Ali Mohsen, who dropped support for Saleh in March, said that any violence against demonstrators would be treated as an attack on the nation's tribes.

The war of words comes as clashes between government forces and armed tribesmen continue within miles of Sanaa, raising fears that the violence could come to the capital.

"Even if (we) remain committed to peaceful means, many of those opposed to the government do not share our commitment," said Salah al Sharafi, a leading youth activist. "The government knows that if they attack us, they will bring war back to the streets of Sanaa. Of course, that may be what they want."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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Already poor, Yemen taking an economic beating from unrest

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