Yemen’s Saleh Losing Grip as Fighting Rages

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adam Baron, McClatchy Newspapers

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An anti-government protester, his face painted with the colours of Yemen’s national flag, shouts slogans during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa June 1, 2011. Renewed fighting in Yemen’s capital between a powerful tribal group and President Ali Abdullah Saleh forces this week has killed at least 19 people and rocked Sanaa with explosions, officials said on Wednesday.    

REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Sanaa, Yemen – After four months of widespread anti-government demonstrations, numerous defections of high-ranking officials and mounting pressure from powerful tribes, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to be losing his increasingly fragile grip on the southern Arabian nation.

Fighting raged all day Tuesday in the capital between Saleh’s forces and fighters loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, the leader of one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal federations, signaling the collapse of ceasefire negotiations. With the sound of shelling echoing until well after nightfall, Saleh’s forces bombarded the Hasaba neighborhood around Ahmar’s house, which includes several government ministries, but Ahmar’s fighters maintained their hold on the area.

The United Nations’ top human rights official condemned the government’s “intensified use of force” against protesters in the southern city of Taiz, a center of the anti-government movement 120 miles south of Sanaa. The U.N. said it had received unconfirmed reports that more than 50 people were killed and hundreds injured there since Sunday by pro-government forces using live ammunition.

In Sanaa, news reports said that Saleh’s forces targeted an army division headed by Ali Mohsin, a powerful general who defected from the government in March. The Yemeni Department of Defense denied the reports, however, and several top army defectors appear for now to have stayed out of the fighting.

Top members of the military, once Saleh’s most reliable base of support, have been deserting him since pro-government forces were ordered to fire on protesters in Sanaa in March in one of the bloodiest crackdowns of the so-called Arab Spring protests. Over the weekend, amid reports of mounting army defections, a group of anti-government generals put out a statement calling on members of the military to declare their support for the protests.

Many argue that support for Saleh is waning even in army divisions that remain ostensibly under his command.

“Many of us are waiting for the right time to join the revolution,” a member of the elite Republican Guard, which is led by Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali, said on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals. “Even if we stay for now, we will leave if ordered to fire on our brothers.”

In power for 32 years, Saleh has managed to weather Yemen’s volatile political climate by keeping close ties with the military and cleverly striking deals with Yemen’s powerful tribes. He’s survived numerous attempted coups, a civil war in 1994 and insurrections from rebels in the country’s north and south — in part by positioning himself as a Western-friendly Arab leader who’s received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance to combat the influence of al Qaida-linked militants on Yemeni soil.

However, with demonstrations against his rule escalating, the U.S. and other powers have been pushing Saleh to agree to a deal brokered by Arab Gulf states under which he’d cede power within 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Opposition leaders have signed it, but Saleh has refused.

“Saleh seems to think he can escape this crisis as he has done in the past, but many in the country believe things have fundamentally changed,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University. “That, in essence, is the conflict.”

Clashes between government forces and anti-government tribesmen have continued in numerous areas in the countryside around Sanaa, while fighting between the Yemeni army and what it has called Islamist militants has re-emerged in the long-troubled southern province of Abyan.

In Taiz, independent reports said that the army, Republican Guards and other pro-government forces forcibly destroyed the main protest camp at Horriya Square using water cannons, bulldozers and live ammunition.

“Such reprehensible acts of violence and indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians by armed security officers must stop immediately,” said the U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay.

Speaking in Geneva, Pillay said that at least 100 people were believed to have been arrested over the weekend in Taiz, while dozens of others were unaccounted for, and that her staff had received many reports of ill treatment, torture and killings at the hands of security forces. She called on Yemeni authorities to investigate the cases.

In a statement Monday, the U.S. Embassy condemned recent attacks on demonstrators, while reiterating previous calls for Saleh to transfer power.

The growing instability has made daily life significantly more difficult in the Arab world’s most impoverished country, where nearly 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Access to basic utilities is increasingly unreliable, as even the capital continues to experience widespread blackouts and gas shortages. Business has ground nearly to a halt in urban areas, with many Yemenis fleeing violence for the relative safety of the countryside.

Government figures estimate that the nation has lost up to $4 billion since the demonstrations began, as the value of the Yemeni rial continues to fall against the dollar; the black-market exchange rate is well above the official rate of 215 to 1.

The faltering economy hasn’t significantly affected Saleh’s ability to cling to power yet, but analysts say that the damage will likely have long-reaching effects.

“No matter what happens, economic issues are going to have a large effect on whoever comes next,” Johnsen said. “Yemen’s worsening economic issues will severely hamper any future government as it attempts to recover from over 30 years of misrule.”

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In Yemen, Locals Worry About Obama Policy on Al-Qaeda

January 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Michael Horton, The Christian Science Monitor

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Yemeni family. (Photo: Richard Messenger / Flickr)

From smoky halls to the rugged mountains of Yemen, locals are worried that their country – threatened more by poverty and water shortages than terrorism, they say – could turn into another Afghanistan.

Sanaa, Yemen – Amid an intensifying US effort to curb Al Qaeda activity in Yemen, locals in this impoverished country are worried that a focus on military aid alone could backfire – spawning a more robust militant movement and potentially drawing the US into an Afghanistan-like war.

In a smoke-filled hall in the capital of Sanaa, where men gather to chew the mildly intoxicating leaves of the qat tree and smoke water pipes, most of the talk is about Al-Qaeda and American intentions in Yemen.

“By God, they want to turn this country into Afghanistan,” declares Mohammad al-Jaffi, a young man who says he fled the Arhab area, a mountainous region just north of Sanaa, after a recent attack on a suspected Al Qaeda hideout. On Monday, the government said it killed two Al Qaeda members in the Arhab region.

“We are not radicals here,” Mr. Jaffi adds, his cheek bulging with the pulpy green leaves that strict Salafis — the Muslim sect that Al Qaeda members belong to — consider forbidden. Holding up a qat branch, he yells, “Look at this. We all chew this here – in Afghanistan, in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis would kill us for chewing qat.”

But US and other foreign diplomats are clearly concerned. France, Germany, and Japan all closed their embassies Monday, following US and British closures the previous day, amid reports that a significant amount of explosives had gone missing from the Yemeni army.

“Exclusive Focus on Al Qaeda a Mistake”

With the reported surge in Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen, the Obama administration has reiterated its “partnership” with the increasingly vulnerable regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who faces a rebellion in the north and secessionists in the south. Gen. David Petraeus, who as head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) is overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, announced on Jan. 1 that the US would double military aid to Yemen after allocating a reported $70 million in 2009.

It has been widely reported that the US is also providing the Yemeni government with intelligence and military trainers. Britain, meanwhile, has announced that it will fund an antiterror police force. Such a sole focus on suspected terrorism is seen as a mistake by some experts as well as locals.

“I think an exclusive focus on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of every other threat in Yemen is a mistake,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton PhD candidate who was recently in Yemen for his research on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “Viewing this threat only through the prism of Al Qaeda induces exactly the kind of result the US is hoping to avoid.”

Locals in two provinces often cited as Al Qaeda strongholds, Al-Jawf and Marib, are more concerned with severe poverty – an issue they say the central government has done little to alleviate.

“This government does not care about us. Everything we have, we have to fight for – to get money for a school or medicine we have to block the road. This is all they listen to,” says Ahmad al-Nasri. “By God the tribe is all we have, it is what protects us.”

Mr. Johnsen says that development aid is “crucial” in Marib and Al-Jawf, but disputes the popular depiction of Yemen as a place with large areas that are totally ungovernable.

“The government doesn’t appear to be able to constantly control these areas,” he acknowledges, citing recent flare-ups between tribal leaders and the government. “But the image of Yemen being a Wild West … is not necessarily accurate.”

Yemeni government offices in Sanaa were closed and the Yemeni embassy in Washington was unable to comment before press time.

Water Shortages

A potentially greater destabilizing influence than militancy in Yemen is water shortages, which are already the root of a large percentage of the inter-tribal fighting that plagues the country.

The UN has ranked Yemen as one of the most water-scarce countries, and one local geology professor has estimated that Sanaa’s wells will go dry by 2015 at current usage rates. The country is in desperate need of investment in new drip irrigation systems and water conservation measures.

“Look at these apricot trees,” says Mohammad Faris, who owns an orchard on the outskirts of Sanaa that once flourished. “Half of them are dead from lack of water.”

“We don’t need more guns in this country,” declares Mr. Faris as he stands among the parched remains of what used to be fertile ground. “This village needs a new water pump and we need new trees that drink less water.”

Increased Sympathy for Al Qaeda?

Many locals emphasize that the country’s primary need is development aid, which has in the past been hampered by international concerns about government corruption. But some say they’re ready to fight if the US comes – a prospect that as yet looks unlikely, though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut recently suggested that without preemptive action a future war may occur.

“We have a long history of fighting invaders here,” says Ismail Hadi, a village elder in the rugged mountainous province of Hajjah, not far from the sectarian war being fought against Houthi rebels. As he looks out over his terraces of qat trees that cascade down towards a deep canyon, he adds, “We fought the Turks, we fought the Egyptians, God willing we will fight the Americans when they come.”

Back at the Sanaa qat hall, Uithman al- Ansi echoes that sentiment.

“If the Americans want a fight they will get it,” says Mr. Ansi as he grabs the hilt of his jambiya, the traditional dagger carried by many men here. Another man who says he is from Marib, one of the two frequently cited Al Qaeda strongholds, suggests that US attacks or support for attacks on suspected militants could increase the number of Al Qaeda sympathizers in Yemen.

“The Americans don’t know our customs,” says the man. “When they attacked al-Harithi [a suspected Al-Qaeda member who was targeted by a US drone in November 2002] on our lands, his people became our guests. We have long memories.”

Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from Boston.

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