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U.S. Facing Loss of Key Ally Against Al-Qaeda Group in Yemen

Ali Abdullah Saleh Yemen's president. Photographer:
Ali Abdullah Saleh Yemen's president. Photographer:

March 22 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama is on the verge of losing a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh attempted today to set conditions for quitting in the face of a popular uprising and defections among his ruling elite.

“It’s clear at this point that Saleh will have to step down,” Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said in an interview yesterday. With the “mounting numbers of senior people in his administration resigning, we know it’s over. The terms of his departure, I think, are still being negotiated.”

The March 18 killing of at least 46 protesters allegedly by police and pro-regime gunmen -- which drew condemnation from Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and prompted the defection of key military, tribal and government officials -- may well be the tipping point.

Obama’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, told Saleh in a telephone call March 20 “that kind of violence is unacceptable,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said aboard Air Force One yesterday.

“There’s clearly going to have to be a political solution in Yemen that includes a government that is more responsive to the Yemeni people,” Rhodes said.

‘Leave, Leave’

In an address on state television today, Saleh told defecting generals that they risk dragging the country into a “bloody civil war,” and signaled his terms for leaving office. The president is “ready to leave power by the end of the year after a new government based on parliamentary election is formed,” his press secretary, Ahmed al-Sufi, said in a phone interview today.

Demonstrators at Taghyeer Square in Sana’a, the site of the shootings, today resumed calls for an immediate end to Saleh’s three-decade rule. “Leave, leave!” thousands chanted.

The course of events for Saleh may largely depend on the loyalty of people in the security forces, said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“If President Saleh steps down, it’ll all go over peacefully,” he said. “If he attempts to fight this, then it could get very, very bloody.”

Saleh has been struggling to hang on since demonstrations inspired by those in Egypt and Tunisia began two months ago. The government deployed tanks yesterday to protect the presidential palace.

‘It’s Hopeless’

Until last week, there was a “fading hope that somehow Saleh could reach an accommodation with the opposition,” said David Newton, another former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, which the United Nations ranks as the poorest Arab country.

“Friday really tore it,” said Newton, now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, referring to the shootings. “He’s going. It’s hopeless.”

Saleh’s departure is likely to undermine, at least temporarily, U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Yemen experts said. Saleh has been an important ally in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group responsible for sending two parcel bombs to U.S. synagogues in October and the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009.

Because of Saleh’s cooperation, the Obama administration “has been reluctant to be too critical” in its comments, said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

‘Urgent Concern’

Clinton, on a visit to Yemen in January, said that Yemen-based terrorists are an “urgent concern” for the U.S. Yemen, which gets about $300 million a year in U.S. security and humanitarian assistance, stepped up operations against al-Qaeda after the attempted Detroit attack.

Last week’s deadly violence, the worst in two months of protests, prompted the resignation of three ministers, members of parliament, and at least three diplomats. Numerous top military officials declared support for the opposition.

Saleh, who said security forces weren’t responsible, sacked his cabinet, and prosecutors issued 10 arrest warrants in connection with the deaths.

U.S. analysts said the White House will have to be nimble in revamping in its Yemen policy.

“The hope is to come through a transition with at least some cooperative measures still intact,” said Steven Simon, a Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Economic Problems

Yemen faces a failing economy, serious water shortages, declining oil output and a society where more than half the population of 23 million is under 20 years old and about 40 percent of the people live on the equivalent of less than $2 a day.

“Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and fighting terrorism is our biggest problem, but it’s not Yemen’s number-one priority,” Boucek said.

The Yemeni government is struggling to quell two internal revolts, a secessionist movement in the south and a Shiite uprising in the north. Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing has also launched cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira Lakshmanan in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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