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Yemen conflict deepens as dissident general's troops enter fray

The return of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has sharpened the fight between his supporters and rivals – and raised concerns that the citizens who started the peaceful uprising will be the losers.

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Since defecting in March, Mohsen – who is rarely referred to by his last name of Ahmar to avoid confusion with a powerful family here by the same name – and his troops have largely operated behind the scenes. Eager to appear as protectors and not protesters, they confined themselves to setting up and manning sandbagged entrances to Change Square. But the events of the past week have shifted the dynamic.

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Mohsen’s troops are now fully intermixed with the protesters; cruising through the camp in the back of armored vehicles, chewing qat in protester’s tents, even being treated alongside injured protesters in the nearby field hospital. Initial doubt over whether the renegade troops would aid their cause has largely been replaced by the prevailing attitude that they are the “heroes and vanguards” of the revolution.

“In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the firqa [Mohsen's troops] but now it’s different, it’s clear to us now that without them we’d be slaughtered,” a young protester leader named Adel told the Monitor on Monday. The fear remains though that their increasingly active role may help justify an even tougher crackdown by the regime on the basis they are fighting armed groups and not civilian demonstrators.

Settling old scores

It is unlikely that revolutionary fervor was the only thing that drove Mohsen to jump ship. By joining the opposition movement, Mohsen and other defectors from the regime are not so much heralding a new era for the Yemeni people as settling old scores.

For decades, Mohsen served as the regime’s iron fist, helping Saleh win a bloody civil war in 1994 against southern Yemen before crushing a series of rebellions by the Houthis, a rebellious Shiite-offshoot group in the north, in a campaign that displaced millions. Relations between the two took a turn for the worse a few years back when Mohsen became convinced that Saleh was secretly grooming his son Ahmed, also an army general, for the presidency.

A classified US embassy cable released by Wikileaks revealed how the Yemeni military told their Saudi counterparts to bomb a site in the northern region of Saada that turned out to be Mohsen's base. The extraordinary plot was foiled when the Saudi pilots, sensing something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis, aborted the air strike.

Since Saleh's return, Mohsen has shown no sign of softening his stance. Last week the wayward general lashed out at Saleh in a statement calling him a "sick, vengeful soul" and comparing him to the Roman emperor Nero, fiddling as his city burns.

The Ahmars

Another fear surrounding Saleh's sudden reappearance is that it may end up drawing Yemen's powerful tribal leaders back into fray. When Saleh was airlifted to Saudi Arabia in June, Sadeq Al-Ahmar, the grizzled-bearded sheikh heading Yemen's most influential tribe, the Hashid, swore "by God that he would never let Saleh rule again."

Like Mohsen, Sadeq, one of the wealthiest and most outspoken figures in the country, had been allied with Saleh until March when he announced his support for the "peaceful youth movement." Sadeq’s brother Hamid, a billionaire and former Saleh ally, has fashioned himself as a potential successor to Saleh. And like Mohsen, Hamid loathes the prospect that Saleh's son might become Yemen's next leader.

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