U.S. Facing Loss of Key Ally Against Al-Qaeda Group in Yemen
March 22 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama is on the verge of
losing a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, as Yemeni President
Ali Abdullah Saleh appears unlikely to weather a popular uprising and
defections among his ruling elite, former U.S. officials said.
"It's clear at this point that Saleh will have to step down,"
Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said in an
interview yesterday. With the "mounting numbers of senior people in
his administration resigning, we know it's over. The terms of his
departure, I think, are still being negotiated."
The March 18 killing of at least 46 protesters allegedly by police and
pro-regime gunmen -- which drew condemnation from Obama and Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton and prompted the defection of key military,
tribal and government officials -- may well be the tipping point.
Obama's counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, told Saleh in a
telephone call March 20 "that that kind of violence is
unacceptable," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser
for strategic communications, said aboard Air Force One yesterday.
Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, has been struggling to hang
on since demonstrations inspired by those in Egypt and Tunisia began
two months ago. The government deployed tanks yesterday to protect the
"There's clearly going to have to be a political solution in Yemen
that includes a government that is more responsive to the Yemeni
people," Rhodes said.
Until last week, there was a "fading hope that somehow Saleh could
reach an accommodation with the opposition," said David Newton,
another former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, which the United Nations
ranks as the poorest Arab country.
"Friday really tore it," said Newton, now a scholar at the Middle
East Institute in Washington, referring to the shootings. "He's
going. It's hopeless."
Saleh's departure is likely to undermine, at least temporarily, U.S.
counterterrorism efforts, Yemen experts said. Saleh has been an
important ally in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,
the Yemen-based group responsible for sending two parcel bombs to U.S.
synagogues in October and the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound
plane on Christmas Day 2009.
Because of Saleh's cooperation, the Obama administration "has been
reluctant to be too critical" in its comments, said Christopher
Boucek, a Yemen analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace in Washington.
Clinton, on a visit to Yemen in January, said that Yemen- based
terrorists are an "urgent concern" for the U.S. Yemen, which gets
about $300 million a year in U.S. security and humanitarian
assistance, stepped up operations against al-Qaeda after the attempted
Last week's deadly violence, the worst in two months of protests,
prompted the resignation of three ministers, members of parliament,
and at least three diplomats. Numerous top military officials declared
support for the opposition.
Saleh, who said security forces weren't responsible, sacked his
cabinet, and prosecutors issued 10 arrest warrants in connection with
U.S. analysts said the White House will have to be nimble in revamping
in its Yemen policy.
"The hope is to come through a transition with at least some
cooperative measures still intact," said Steven Simon, a Middle East
fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Yemen faces a failing economy, serious water shortages, declining oil
output and a society where more than half the population of 23 million
is under 20 years old and about 40 percent of the people live on the
equivalent of less than $2 a day.
"Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and fighting terrorism is our
biggest problem, but it's not Yemen's number-one priority,"
The Yemeni government is struggling to quell two internal revolts, a
secessionist movement in the south and a Shiite uprising in the north.
Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based wing has also launched cross-border attacks on
Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter.
The course of events for Saleh may largely depend on the loyalty of
people in the central security forces and the Republican Guard, said
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University in New Jersey.
"If President Saleh steps down, it'll all go over peacefully," he
said. "If he attempts to fight this, then it could get very, very