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The United States is quietly withdrawing its support for embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, The New York Times reported on Sunday. The change in stance toward one of Washington’s staunchest security allies in the region has raised questions about what a new president would mean for counterterrorism initiatives in the region.
The Obama administration has been accused of hypocrisy for strongly supporting protesters in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, but standing behind strategic allies in other countries who have brutally quashed their own protests, such as Mr. Saleh and the Bahrain royal family.
White House and Yemeni officials told The New York Times that staunch US support of Saleh began wavering at about the same time that negotiations opened with Saleh on transferring power. Officials now consider his hold on the presidency "untenable" and think he should leave office.
For Washington, the key to his departure would be arranging a transfer of power that would enable counterterrorism operations in Yemen to continue.
One administration official referred to that concern last week, saying that the standoff between the president and the protesters “has had a direct adverse impact on the security situation throughout the country.”
“Groups of various stripes – Al Qaeda, Houthis, tribal elements, and secessionists – are exploiting the current political turbulence and emerging fissures within the military and security services for their own gain,” the official said. “Until President Saleh is able to resolve the current political impasse by announcing how and when he will follow through on his earlier commitment to take tangible steps to meet opposition demands, the security situation in Yemen is at risk of further deterioration.”
All signs point to Saleh’s 32-year run as president nearing its end. In a meeting with sheikhs, political leaders, and members of various youth and civil society organizations on Sunday, Saleh reiterated that he is ready to talk about transferring power through a constitutional process, reported Yemen’s official news agency.
On Saturday, an opposition coalition called on Saleh to hand over power to his deputy, Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi, reports Al Jazeera. The coalition asked that Mr. Hadi reorganize the Republican Guard as well as the central and national security forces. The protesters had previously demanded a completely new government, free of any officials linked to Saleh's time in power.
A Yemen without Saleh alarms the US, which has considered Saleh a key ally on terrorism issues. He supported US raids against the local Al Qaeda franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has its stronghold in Yemen. The raids were unpopular in Yemen, and a 2010 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks revealed that Saleh accepted public responsibility for the American raids, most likely to avoid being seen as cooperating with the West.
The US is now wondering what it can expect as far as the continuation of those counterterrorism initiatives.
“I think it is a real concern because the most active and, at this point, perhaps the most aggressive branch of Al Qaeda – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – operates out of Yemen,” Gates said. “And we have had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation from President Saleh and Yemeni Security Services. So if that government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we'll face some additional challenges out of Yemen. There's no question about it. It's a real problem.”