Yemen's leader causes headaches in Washington
Updated: December 29, 2011 10:19 PM
By The Associated Press BRADLEY KLAPPER (Associated Press), JULIE PACE
WASHINGTON - (AP) -- The <http://www.newsday.com/topics/Barack_Obama
administration is weighing an unprecedented diplomatic act -- whether to bar
a friendly president from U.S. soil.
American officials were evaluating on Tuesday an awkward request from Yemeni
strongman and longtime U.S. counterterrorism partner
> Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh
has said he plans to come to the United States for medical treatment for
injuries suffered in a June assassination attempt, and he has asked for a
U.S. visa for entry to the country. Fearful of appearing to harbor an
autocrat with blood on his hands, the Obama administration was trying to
ensure that Saleh visits only for medical care and doesn't plan to stay,
U.S. officials said.
Washington's hesitation reflects the shifting alliances and foreign policy
strategy prompted by a year of upheaval in the Arab world. Saleh has served
as an American ally against <http://www.newsday.com/topics/Al-Qaeda
al-Qaida and will soon transfer power under a U.S.-backed deal with Yemen's
opposition aimed at ending months of instability. He isn't subject to any
U.S. or international sanctions.
But he also is accused of committing gross human rights violations during a
year of internal conflict, and the U.S. is trying not to burn any bridges
with Yemeni political groups likely to take part in future governments.
Political asylum for Saleh in the United States, or the appearance of
preferential treatment from an administration that has championed peaceful
and democratic change, would be highly unpopular with Yemenis who've fought
to depose their dictator of 33 years.
Officials close to the Saleh said Washington's suspicion that he may seek
political asylum was delaying approval of his trip. They spoke on condition
of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. But American
officials appeared to substantiate those concerns and said they were
troubled by Saleh's recent comments portraying his trip as a move designed
to ease the political transition.
"What we're looking at now is a request to come to the United States for the
sole purpose of medical treatment,"
> State Department
spokesman Mark Toner said, refusing to go into the specific of the
evaluation. "That permission has not been granted yet."
Toner declined to elaborate on the assurances the United States wanted from
Saleh or offer a timetable for a decision. He also couldn't say whether any
provisions existed under U.S. law to prevent the Yemeni leader from visiting
the country -- provided he assures officials he demonstrates he'll only stay
In that case, Saleh almost surely will be granted entry, U.S. officials
said, speaking on condition of anonymity because visa evaluations are
supposed to be confidential. It's unclear when, if ever, the last time the
head of state of a friendly government was blocked from visiting the United
One official went so far as to say Saleh's exit from Yemen might be
beneficial by lowering the risk of disruptions in the lead-up to planned
February elections. The U.S. is committed to doing everything it can to
ensure those elections take place, the official said, but
> President Barack Obama's
national security team was expected to make the final decision on Saleh's
request. Obama was being briefed on developments while on vacation in
The Obama administration's attempts to tightly contain its internal debate
over whether to allow Saleh into the country were quickly thwarted.
With Obama vacationing, the administration waited almost two days before
responding to Saleh's assertion that he would be traveling to the U.S.
Officials at the <http://www.newsday.com/topics/White_House
> White House
and State Department initially insisted that while Saleh's request was being
considered, no decision had been made.
But reports that the U.S. already had decided to approve Saleh's request
quickly surfaced, forcing officials in both Washington and
> Honolulu to issue repeated
The botched handling of the sensitive debate frustrated some officials, who
worried about fallout in the <http://www.newsday.com/topics/Middle_East
Demonstrators began protesting against Saleh and calling for his ouster in
February. The Yemeni government responded with a bloody crackdown, leaving
hundreds of protesters dead, and stoking fears of instability in a nation
grappling with burgeoning extremism. Yemen's dangerous al-Qaida branch,
known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has taken advantage of the
vacuum to expend its presence in the south of the country.
International pressure has mounted for months for Saleh to step aside. A
June rocket attack on his compound left him badly burned and wounded, and
led Saleh to seek medical treatment in neighboring
> Saudi Arabia for three months.
American officials had hoped he would remain there, but the Yemeni leader
returned and violence worsened anew.
Last month, Saleh agreed to a Saudi-backed deal to hand power to his vice
president and commit to stepping down completely in exchange for immunity.
The deal further angered Saleh's opponents, who demanded he be tried for his
attacks on protesters. Opponents also lament that he has continued to wield
influence through loyalists and relatives remaining in positions of power,
and many fear he may find a way to continue his rule.
Protests have expanded recently to include labor strikes, calls for Saleh to
be put on trial and demands that his loyalists to be removed from office.
Activists said troops commanded by Saleh's relatives attacked protesters in
the capital of Sanaa over the weekend, killing at least nine people. Tens of
thousands demonstrated the following day.
Saleh's immediate plans are unclear. The wily leader of three decades has
maintained his rule over a country divided by tribal and regional loyalties
by consistently outsmarting his opponents, but Toner said the U.S. is trying
to remind everyone of the "importance of continuing along this agreed-upon
path of political transition that will lead to the next election."
"We need to see that process continue regardless of where President Saleh
is," Toner said.
An American official said Saleh's office informed the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa
that the outgoing leader would leave Yemen soon and travel elsewhere abroad
first, before possibly coming to the U.S.
The situation offers an eerie parallel to three decades ago, when President
Jimmy Carter allowed the exiled shah of
> Iran into the U.S. for medical
treatment. The decision contributed to rapidly worsening relations between
Washington and Ayatollah <http://www.newsday.com/topics/Ruhollah_Khomeini
Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution in <http://www.newsday.com/topics/Tehran
Tehran, with Iranian students occupying the U.S. Embassy in Iran a month
Fifty-two American hostages were held for 444 days in response to Carter's
refusal to send the shah back to Iran for trial.
Pace reported from Honolulu. Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa contributed to this
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Received on Thu Dec 29 2011 - 05:48:08 EST