Yemen’s Leader Said to Plan Return ‘in Days’

6 Jun

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The health of Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has improved enough that he plans to return home “in a few days” after receiving medical treatment here, the vice president and acting leader of Yemen told American and European diplomats Monday, according to a Yemeni official.
The vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, took over as temporary leader after Mr. Saleh, who has been resisting calls to step down for months, left the country hurriedly on Saturday for Saudi Arabia following a deadly attack on his presidential compound the day before.
According to the Yemeni official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, Mr. Hadi met with Western diplomats as well as members of Yemen’s ruling party on Monday in Sana, the capital, and described Mr. Saleh’s plan to return.
Mr. Saleh and his advisers are adept political players, and it is possible that they are simply posturing to win the best deal from foreign patrons and Yemenis who are trying to ease him out after 33 years of autocratic rule. But the officials’ contention that Mr. Saleh would return to power underscores the difficulties Saudi and American officials face in trying to resolve the standoff before Yemen’s always poisonous politics tip the country into broader conflict, a grim prospect for its northern neighbor and the United States. Yemen is already home to an active branch of Al Qaeda that has tried to carry out terrorist attacks on the United States and that seeks to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.
On Sunday, thousands of antigovernment protesters celebrated in the streets of Yemen’s capital, setting off fireworks and slaughtering cows to mark the departure of Mr. Saleh, despite new uncertainty about when — and even whether — he would agree to a lasting transfer of power.
“He is awake and he is conscious; he is in charge,” said a close adviser who was with him during Friday’s attack, likely by a mortar shell or rocket, and is being treated at the same military hospital in Riyadh.
On Sunday, Obama administration officials said that the United States was pressing Mr. Saleh and his allies to accept a deal recently negotiated by Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, that would allow him to leave power in exchange for immunity. Several officials hinted that the United States might be willing to throw in financial incentives to induce Mr. Saleh to relinquish the presidency for good.
Some analysts said Saudi Arabia’s leadership would not allow Mr. Saleh to return to power after months of frustrating efforts to cajole him to step down amid growing instability. And on Sunday, Western diplomats and Arab experts said they expected that Saudi and American officials were maneuvering behind the scenes to win agreement for a transition plan in Yemen before Mr. Saleh could return home to undermine their efforts.
But there is one wild card in those calculations: many Saudis have long supported Mr. Saleh because of his skill in suppressing dissent, and it was unclear if they were prepared to unseat him so abruptly. The original transition plan built in some time before he had to leave office to allow for an orderly succession.
“They’re really in the eye of the hurricane, and it’s very hard to predict where events will go now,” said Charles Schmitz, a Yemen specialist at Towson University in Baltimore.
There were worrisome signs on Sunday that Yemen’s turmoil was far from over. Although a cease-fire to end fierce fighting in the capital between government forces and tribal rivals working with the opposition was mainly holding, mortar fire could still be heard in at least one neighborhood. And although a Yemeni official said some family members left Sana, the capital, with Mr. Saleh on Saturday, several sons and nephews who control the powerful military and intelligence services remained behind.
Mr. Hadi, the vice presideent, has taken over as temporary leader, but analysts say he may have trouble maintaining control, especially if some factions see the president’s absence as a chance to finally dislodge him and his family. Many of Mr. Saleh’s enemies are well-armed, including a general who recently defected with many of his troops in sympathy with the pro-democracy protesters.
Saudi leaders, who have long meddled in Yemeni politics, were largely quiet on Sunday about their efforts to enable political change in Yemen. The silence was a possible indication of the bad choices they were left with when the attack on Mr. Saleh’s compound instantly reshaped a leadership debate that had been raging for months as massive street protests whittled away at the president’s standing.
While the Saudis — who are dedicated to enforcing stability in the region — have told Mr. Saleh he should go, the sudden change made it more difficult to structure an orderly handover of power and eventual elections.
Abdullah Hamidaddin, a political scientist, said Saudi Arabia had wanted Mr. Saleh to leave office because its leaders thought that would bring “less bloodshed, less unpredictability.” But, he said, “they wanted it in a way that does not create a power vacuum and an unpredictable future.”
Mr. Saleh’s troubles started in January when revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted longtime dictators and inspired pro-democracy protesters in Yemen. The turmoil got markedly worse in recent weeks when the Ahmar family, the tribal rivals who helped bankroll the demonstrations, engaged in street battles with government forces — turning parts of Sana into virtual war zones.
Mr. Saleh blamed the Ahmars and their militia for the attack on his compound, but the Ahmars denied involvement.
On Sunday, Yemeni officials did not want to go into details about Mr. Saleh’s wounds. But Arab news reports quoted Saudi medical officials as saying he had had two operations to remove pieces of wood after an explosion at the presidential compound.
Some analysts and diplomats were optimistic on Sunday that the latest Yemeni crisis would be resolved peacefully.
They said that although the Saudi-brokered cease-fire in the capital had not held perfectly, the relative calm was an indication that both sides saw that neither had a clear advantage.
Still, the many rivals for power in Yemen have venomous relations that had been held in check only with Saudi influence and Mr. Saleh’s adroit political maneuvering, which included pitting tribes against one another when convenient.
The rivalries include one between Mr. Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed, who leads the powerful Republican Guard, and Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, the general who recently defected. (The general is not related to the Ahmars who have been fighting the government.)
But protesters in Sana seemed oblivious on Sunday to the intrigue that could derail their hopes for democratic change. In a part of the city they have named Change Square, some families brought their children to see what one called “the party of Saleh’s departure.”
A particularly hopeful chant echoed one popular in Egypt’s successful revolution. “The people, at last, defeated the regime,” the protesters yelled.

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