Can US keep aid flowing to Yemen's Saleh after embassy siege?

Saleh loyalists trapped the US ambassador for hours yesterday in a well-timed warning that Saleh is essential to Yemen's stability – a stance that has secured him millions in US aid.

Gamal Noman/AFP Photo/Getty Images/Newscom
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to the press in the capital Sanaa on May 22. Saleh refused to sign a Gulf-brokered power-transfer plan, demanding clarification on "mechanisms" for its implementation, a ruling party member said. The deal would see him out of office in 30 days.

An armed mob of government loyalists threatening the lives of a major chunk of the foreign diplomatic corps, including the US ambassador. A daring helicopter rescue. Chaos and tribal gunmen in the rest of the capital.

Just another Sunday in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, where an exquisitely timed show by gunmen loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh staved off the signing of a transition plan backed by the US and Gulf states, and increased the chances that Yemen's uprising will deteriorate into all-out war.

President Saleh's 32 years in power have been well-served by his penchant for presenting himself as Yemen's "essential" man, the only one who can hold back the tide of chaos and disorder. He's secured hundreds of millions of dollars from the US with this tactic. It appears he decided yesterday to remind the world of the risks if he's forced to withdraw from power.

Not only did a mob besiege the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, where the US, British, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Omani, and European Union ambassadors had gathered to witness Saleh's signing of the agreement, a pro-Saleh mob briefly attacked the motorcade of Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, the Gulf Cooperation Council's chief negotiator for the deal. Other embassies were surrounded by furious crowds, even China's.

The plan Saleh refused to sign would have seen him step down in a month – while also promising him immunity from prosecution. It was the third time he refused to sign at the last minute. His official reason on this occasion was a protocol complaint: opposition leaders refused to attend a ceremony at the presidential palace.

Yemen's uprising started in earnest in February and since then nearly 200 people have been killed, many of them at the hands of Saleh loyalists. Saleh was given $70 million in US military aid last year and is scheduled to receive $150 million this year. Though the US insists that assistance is exclusively for "counterterrorism," military aid is as fungible as any other kind. Dictators typically use military resources for their own ends, and Yemen's Saleh has been no exception.

A 2009 US diplomatic cable from Sanaa, released by Wikileaks, explained that Saleh had been using a US-trained unit designed to target a local Al Qaeda affiliate to put down a Shiite uprising in the country's north.

At what point does the US consider cutting off Saleh's financial spigot? It's an interesting question. The Washington counterterrorism establishment sees the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the next big thing, and would probably argue that maintaining decent relations with the guy in power is crucial. But what happened yesterday came pretty close to a hostage-taking of a US ambassador by a guy on the US payroll.

That's generally frowned upon.

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