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Al Qaeda militants in southern Yemen attacked several military bases in the region, resulting in the death of at least 106 people. The attacks show that militants continue to be a serious threat in Yemen, even as the nation attempts to transition from the dictatorship of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Some 78 soldiers and 28 militants were killed in the attacks in and around the city of Zinjibar, one of two cities under Al Qaeda control in southern Yemen, reports The New York Times. Another 55 Yemeni troops were captured by Al Qaeda and paraded through Jaar, the other Al Qaeda-held city, according to the Associated Press. A Yemeni official called the attacks a major escalation in the conflict, writes the Times.
Military officials said that the militants seized armored vehicles, artillery pieces, assault rifles, and rockets from the base's stores and turned them on the soldiers, causing most of the casualties. A Defense Ministry statement on Sunday said the fighting began when militants detonated "booby trapped vehicles" at an Army base in the region of Koud, near Zinjibar. The Associated Press reports that the wording of the statement suggested the base had been occupied by the militants before Army forces regrouped and took it back.
Zinjibar and Jaar were both abandoned by Yemeni forces over the past year amid the tumult around Mr. Saleh's government. Some of the soldiers were called to the capital, Sanaa, to bolster the government, while others left their posts.
The attacks on the military bases were just part of an uptick in activity for Al Qaeda, which also claimed to have killed a CIA officer in the southern province of Aden, reports Reuters. Journalists in Yemen received a text message on Friday saying that "The mujihadeen [holy warriors] killed a CIA officer on Thursday while he was in Aden Province, after tracking him and determining he was cooperating with the Sanaa government," Reuters reports. Yemeni and Pentagon officials denied the report, however, saying that a gunman did attack a US vehicle on Friday but did not cause any injuries.
The attacks present an early challenge for the new government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took power last week after Saleh stepped down following months of protests and upheaval. Mr. Hadi, a longtime deputy of Saleh and a relative unknown in Yemen, has indicated his intention to crack down on Al Qaeda and retake the militant-controlled south.
A key part of Hadi's efforts will turn on his ability to reform the military, a longtime demand of the Yemeni people. The Gulf Times reports that thousands of Yemenis demonstrated on Friday to demand the Army's restructuring. During his long reign, Saleh placed several members of his family in key positions in the military, including his son, who leads the elite Republican Guard, and his half-brother, who commands the Air Force.
Hadi has shown early indications that he plans to follow through on the public's demands, as one of his first acts in office was to fire Gen. Mahdi Maqola, the head military commander in the southern region. Maqola, who held the post for decades, has close ties to Saleh and has been accused of corruption. But The Wall Street Journal reports that Maqola refused to leave his post, underscoring the resistance to reform that the government faces.
It is difficult to gauge Hadi's chances for success, as he has largely stayed in the background of Yemeni politics, despite 17 years as Saleh's deputy. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Yemeni commentators have called him "a weak man in terms of personality" and "a quiet personality" without "plans or ambitions to become the vice president."
But at least one commentator sees some reason to believe Hadi may yet be influential. Syrian professor Sami Moubayed, in a commentary for Asia Times Online, draws a comparison between Hadi and former Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat.
The story of Yemen's new president reminds us of Egypt on the eve of Gamal Abdul Nasser's death in 1970. While at the apex of his career, Nasser appointed his loyal protege Anwar al-Sadat as vice-president, believing that Sadat would always carry out orders with no questions asked.
When Nasser died in September 1970, heavyweights in the Egyptian state backed Sadat for president, arguing that he would be a weak and colorless leader who they would be able to play with at will because he lacked a strong personality, and a power base on the Egyptian Street. Pretty soon, however, Sadat matured into a political genius, bringing down his opponents, one by one, and rising to paramount leadership traits that he matched - and in some cases outdid - the legendary Nasser himself. In theory, nothing prevents Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi from writing Ali Abdullah Saleh into history, and becoming another Anwar al-Sadat.