US, worried about Al Qaeda in Yemen, urges Saleh to step down immediately

With Yemeni violence persisting as President Saleh convalesces in Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recommended an immediate transition to a new government.

Mohammed Al-Sayaghi/AP
A defected army soldier checks a car at a checkpoint in Sanaa, Yemen, on Monday, June 6. Violence threatened Yemen's capital with a return to chaos Monday with at least six opposition forces reported killed after a day of jubilation had gripped Sanaa with the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who traveled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend for medical treatment for wounds he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to allow an "immediate transition" to a new president and unity government, seeking to limit Yemen's political chaos. The US fears that Islamist militants are taking advantage of the power vacuum and upheaval in Sanaa to expand their network in the country's south.

“We think an immediate transition is in the best interests of the Yemeni people," Secretary Clinton said Monday in Washington, according to the Post.

Yemeni government officials insist that President Saleh will be home within days, but they are split over whether to support the establishment of a new unity government now or await Saleh's return. Saleh traveled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend for medical treatment after his presidential compound was shelled, leaving him with a collapsed lung and burns on 40 percent of his body, CNN reports.

The Washington Post reports that the foreign minister and Vice President Abdul Rabu Mansoor Hadi, the acting president while Saleh is recovering, said that Saleh's time was over and pushed for the establishment of a new interim government. Other officials said the proposal was equivalent to a coup.

The US has made it clear that it supports an end to Saleh's rule and the election of a new leader. The fact that violence did not stop with the departure of Saleh and temporary cessation of his strong-arm tactics underscores that Yemen's volatility extends well beyond opposition to Saleh's 32-year rule. Exacerbating the vacuum is the fact that there is no clear successor, Bloomberg reports.

“There’s a power vacuum that’s opening up,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “It’s probably the worst-case scenario because there’s no clear succession pattern that is acceptable to all parties.”

Bloomberg reports that the political opposition is pushing the Gulf Cooperation Council proposal: Saleh's resignation within 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution, and a transition to a new government within 60 days. The US has backed the proposal.

The Washington Post notes that Mr. Hadi, the acting president, is not nearly as powerful as Saleh's son and nephews who command some of the country's elite forces. If Saleh is pushed out of office, a violent power struggle could unfold between his family and whoever tries to take over the Yemeni government. In the volatile country, a power struggle could quickly devolve into full-blown civil war.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar from Princeton University, notes on his Waq al-Waq blog that it is Saleh's son, not Hadi, who moved into the presidential compound upon Saleh's departure. And official government troops are not protecting Hadi; that task is reportedly being fulfilled by troops loyal to defector Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.

While the question of who will lead is batted around in Sanaa and Washington, the Yemeni government's hold on power, "tenuous before the uprising," is slipping further, Bloomberg notes. Fighting raged again on Tuesday in Zinjibar, a city in Yemen's far south that was overtaken last week by militants, possibly from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), according to Reuters.

The fact is that the US would likely not be as engaged in Yemen's transition if it weren't for American concerns about the unrest giving freer rein to AQAP, which has made clear its intention – if not its ability – to strike Western targets. In an editorial titled "Yemenis deserve liberty but fighting terrorism comes first," the Bloomberg editorial board writes:

A starkly undeveloped, rugged country at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen languished in obscurity for years. It’s amazing what a thriving branch of al-Qaeda and a popular rebellion can do for a country’s name recognition.

Now Yemen’s fate is of global importance, precisely because, as a state on the verge of collapse, it is a haven for terrorists. It is vital that the U.S. and its allies respond carefully to the unrest there.

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