Yemen: Saleh and 'new guard' play for time

Nov. 16, 2011 at 11:24 AM
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SANAA, Yemen, Nov. 16 (UPI) -- An offer by embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down within 90 days could avert all-out civil war in his tormented country -- if he does it.

Saleh has said at least three times this year he would quit under a Gulf-brokered power transition plan -- then reneged, even as massive protests continue to delegitimize his regime.

The bottom line is Saleh's announcement Monday he would terminate his 33-year-rule once a deal is made on implementing a Persian Gulf initiative to end a nine-month-old uprising may simply be aimed at handing over power to Yemen's "new guard."

These are Saleh's handpicked relatives and military commanders who control most of Yemen's security and intelligence services, on which the Americans rely for intelligence in their escalating covert war against al-Qaida.

Saleh has been assiduously positioning his son and preferred successor, Ahmed, as well as nephews and half-brothers in key positions in recent months as he prepared a succession plan that hinges on a whole new security and intelligence structure he has built up with U.S. assistance and funds.

Saleh has played U.S. and Saudi concerns about the threat from al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula to keep their funds flowing to bankroll his parallel security apparatus, through which he can fight his political rivals.

The opposition forces seeking Saleh's ouster are led by the powerful Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, known for his heavy Islamist leanings who defected from the regime in March in a crisis that has killed nearly 1,500 people.

Saleh himself, who has stayed in power as much by guile as muscle, has allied with Yemen's Islamists over the years, most notably in a civil war with a secessionist south in 1994 that he won in large part by co-opting Islamists who form the backbone of AQAP.

But as he has been forced to make himself and his security services indispensable to the Americans to crush the jihadists, his relations with the Islamists have sunk.

This has been worsened by a swelling economic crisis in which more than 40 percent of the 25 million population exists on less than $2 a day while one-third faces chronic hunger.

So, as political pressure mounts for the United States to get rid of Saleh to avert a nationwide bloodbath, the president fears the escalating U.S. clandestine war against al-Qaida is, in fact, undermining his grip on power.

For the Americans, it's a vicious circle in an ancient nation historically fractured along tribal, religious and, in recent decades, ideological fault lines, including a new secessionist drive in the once-socialist south.

"The instability in Yemen is largely U.S.-induced," observed analyst John Glaser.

"Support for Saleh has led to more state violence, fomenting anti-regime and anti-American hatreds, which then ends up circularly justifying the covert U.S. war there."

Saleh was badly wounded in a June 3 bombing inside his Sanaa palace compound, an assassination attempt inside his most secure facility. He fled to Riyadh for treatment, only returning in September.

But in July there were signs that he and his allies were steadily regaining their strength against Mohsen, until a few years ago one of Saleh's most steadfast allies.

Currently Saleh and his family dominate the military and the intelligence branches, as well as hold sway over much of the country, although in Yemen that is often superficial at best.

But his prospects were badly dented with the Oct. 22 death of Saudi Arabia's longtime defense minister and heir to the throne, Prince Sultan.

He was part of a group within the royal family that favors aiding Saleh to restore some sort of order that will preclude al-Qaida, sworn to topple the House of Saud, from using a political vacuum in Yemen to threaten the kingdom as it did in 2003-07.

Sultan has been replaced by Prince Nayef, the tough-talking former interior minister who advocated dumping Saleh. As the new Crown Prince, Nayef's power has been increased.

He's a hardliner in the battle against the Jihadists. His faction has provided financial support for Saleh's rivals, Mohsen and the politically ambitious Sheikh Hamid of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation.

But, observes the U.S.-based global intelligence consultancy Stratfor, "Mohsen and Sheikh Hamid have a great deal of influence in Yemen to challenge Saleh, but still not enough to drive him out of office by force."

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