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.

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.

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.

“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.”

Many Yemenis would like to see Saleh put on trial for the murder of hundreds who died during protests against his regime during the past year. Tens of thousands came out yesterday to protest the parliament's decision this weekend to grant him immunity from prosecution in Yemen, Al Jazeera reported.

The protesters carried banners during Sunday's rallies in Sanaa calling on parliament members to reverse their decision. "It is our duty... to execute the butcher," chanted the protesters gathered in Change Square, the centre of the democracy movement that has been calling for Saleh's removal since January last year.

There is concern that even though Saleh has agreed to pass authority to his deputy, he will remain actively involved in controlling political life there. After his medical treatment, he has vowed to return and lead his party. Additionally, many of his family members still hold high-ranking positions in the Yemeni military.

“What difference does it make? His family still has the military in their hands,” activist Hamyir Ali was quoted as saying by USA Today. “Ali Abdullah Saleh will still be able to control everything.”

But that control may prove short-lived. Already there are reports that protests have spread to four separate air force bases in Yemen where airmen are calling for the removal of Maj. Gen. Mohammed Saleh, commander of the air force and half-brother to the president, according to the Associated Press.

“We will never give up our demands, if General Mohammed Saleh Al-Ahmer listened to us and gave us our rights we would have accepted, but now it is too late, we demands his departure above anything,” Col. Ahmed Saleh was quoted as saying by the Yemen Times.

According to Saleh, [Maj. Gen. Mohammed Saleh] Al-Ahmer stole billions of rials under the name of air force employees’ bonuses, nutrition packs, and weapons. He also deprived them of promotion opportunities for years.

Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor worries Yemen's stalemate could turn into civil war.

The presidential elections slated to be held in February are widely seen as a sham, even if they are not postponed, wired to simply ratify the elevation of Vice President Abd Rab Mansour al-Hadi and maintain Saleh's power behind the scenes. Such elections do not seem likely to either satisfy the protestors or remove Saleh and his regime from real power. Saleh's family members remain entrenched in key positions in the security apparatus. Meanwhile, as Abdul Ghani al-Iryani noted in December, Saleh and his regime continue to stall, divide the opposition, and play on Western fears of al-Qaeda.

The costs of this political stalemate are enormous.  The mounting humanitarian crisis is reaching staggering proportions. Secessionist sentiment in the south is rising rapidly, while the Houthi rebellion in the north remains potent. Reports of al-Qaeda seizing strategic towns are likely exaggerated, but the jihadist organization is clearly taking advantage of the chaos to build its presence. Real power is devolving to the local level as the political center remains frozen. The absence of legitimate political institutions raises the risks of a complete collapse into civil war.

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