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Yemen's President Saleh departs for US, apparently ending his rule

President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure from Yemen probably marks the end of his 33 years in power, but questions are being raised about Washington's decision to take in the strongman.

By Correspondent / January 23, 2012

In this Sunday, Jan. 22 photo made available by the office of the Yemen presidency, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to the state media reporters at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, Yemen. Saleh said Sunday he will travel to Washington for medical treatment and he asked Yemenis for forgiveness, saying it is time to hand over power in a farewell speech, state media reported.

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Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh gave a farewell speech and is now headed for the United States where he will receive medical treatment for injuries received in a June 2011 bombing amid a year-long uprising against his regime.

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“I ask for pardon from all Yemeni men and women for any shortcoming that occurred during my 33-year rule and I ask forgiveness and offer my apologies to all Yemeni men and women,” said Mr. Saleh in the televised speech. “Now we must concentrate on our martyrs and injured.”

His departure appears to mark the end of his long presidency, fulfilling part of a Western-backed plan for transition in the Arab world's poorest country.

With many relatives and allies still remaining in high-ranking positions, some expect Saleh to wield significant influence from behind the scenes. But with an extremely volatile situation, where protesters have called for the ouster of Saleh's entire regime (not just the head of it), it's not certain the country will long be in their hands.

In that light, Washington's decision to allow him to receive medical care in the US could damage American relations with a future Yemeni government by creating the impression it is sympathetic to Saleh, who has many enemies from his long legacy of divide-and-conquer rule.

Such a decline in relations could jeopardize a key US security focus: combating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which many believe has grown stronger in the south of Yemen as a result of the country's instability. Even before the uprising, some US officials had identified the group – responsible for the foiled 2009 Christmas Day underwear bombing and the 2010 cargo plane bombing plot – as more dangerous than what's left of the original Al Qaeda based in Pakistan

The US sought to deflect suggestions that there was a political motive behind its decision to allow Saleh entry into the country, where he is expected to arrive Wednesday after a stopover in Oman.

“As we have indicated, the sole purpose of this travel is for medical treatment and we expect that he will stay for a limited time that corresponds to the duration of this treatment,” wrote State Department officials in a statement.

US decisions to harbor ousted world leaders have historically been controversial. In 1979, the US decision to allow Iran’s Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to receive treatment in New York spurred the attack on the US Embassy in Tehran, reports the BBC. In Yemen, where tensions remain high after Saleh made an agreement to step down with immunity from future prosecution, American officials have handled the situation with extreme care. 

Speaking about the State Department's brief statement about Saleh’s admission into the US, The New York Times writes, “The statement’s careful wording reflected the vigorous debate within the administration over whether to admit Mr. Saleh, a longtime American ally, and risk appearing to harbor an authoritarian leader accused of responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of antigovernment protesters.”

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