AP sources: US seeks new home for Yemen strongman
Published January 20, 2012
| Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is engaged in an intensive effort
with Yemen's embattled strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to find him a new home,
preferably not in the United States, so that his violence-wracked Arabian
homeland can proceed with a transition to democracy, U.S. officials say.
President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, is leading
the diplomacy, which appears to have gained steam this week when Saleh
sought out U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein in the capital, Sanaa, to
discuss where he could go. The meeting came shortly after Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham Clinton called out Saleh for not living up to his commitments
to leave Yemen and allow elections ending his 34-year dictatorship, the
officials told The Associated Press on Thursday.
But Saleh has few options, leaving the administration in a bind as it tries
to find a nation willing to host a wily leader accused of committing gross
human rights violations over a year of internal conflict. The 69-year-old
leader may have transformed himself from a firm Arab ally of Saddam Hussein
into a vital counterterrorism ally of the United States, but even Washington
doesn't want to be the one forced to provide him a new home.
The administration's unwillingness in part reflects the shifting U.S.
foreign policy calculus prompted by the Arab Spring. 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 Yemeni political groups likely to take part in
future governments. It also could anger people across the Arab world
fighting to oust corrupt and authoritarian rulers.
Despite agreeing last year to transfer power to his vice president ahead of
planned February presidential elections, Saleh is continuing to wield power
behind the scenes and frustrate the efforts of Yemen's would-be reformers.
Talk from Saleh allies about possibly postponing next month's vote has only
further enraged Yemen's opposition. Meanwhile, al-Qaida has taken advantage
of the political instability to enlarge its foothold in the country.
Al-Qaida's advance, in particular, has Washington on alert. Brennan and
other officials are looking for ways to remove Saleh from Yemen as soon as
possible so Yemen's political elites can get back to the business of
fighting terrorists instead of each other. Earlier this week al-Qaida's
Yemen-based branch seized the town of Radaa, an outpost 100 miles south of
the capital and a key gateway to the regional center of Zinjibar, which has
been under the terror group's control since last spring.
Without an end to the power vacuum in Yemen, officials fear al-Qaida in the
Arabian Peninsula will be able to raise funds, win recruits and increase the
possibility of another international terrorist attack. The group is blamed
for trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas 2009 and cargo
planes bound for the United States a year later.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing sensitive diplomacy,
U.S. officials said Saleh has resubmitted a visa application to enter the
United States and that the administration is actively considering his
request. Fearful of appearing to harbor an autocrat with blood on his hands,
the U.S. has withheld approval for a visa since December when Saleh asked to
visit the U.S. to get medical treatment for injuries he sustained in a June
Officials had demanded assurances that Saleh wouldn't remain in the country,
but acknowledge now that if they let him into the United States it would be
to stay. They said no final decision has been made.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates already have rejected Saleh,
officials said. They said other possibilities are still out there, but if no
country steps forward the United States might be forced to choose between
Yemen's future stability and America's own popularity in the Middle East. In
that case, the administration likely would let Saleh in, administration
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 sparking wider violence in the capital with
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.
In November, 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. While he has transferred authority, in principle, to
his vice president, he has continued to pull strings in Yemen's government
through loyalists and relatives still in positions of power. Many fear he'll
continue to rule in practice if he remains in Yemen.
"The instability in Yemen is of great concern, first and foremost to the
Yemeni people, but also to the region and to the world," Clinton told
reporters this week during a trip to the Ivory Coast.
Saleh has made "agreements with respect to the way forward that have not
been fulfilled," she said. "We regret that the president has thus far failed
to comply with his own commitments to leave the country, to permit elections
to go forward that give the people a chance to be heard and be represented."
Even before Yemen's uprising began, it already was the poorest country in
the Arab world, with a weak central government, deep tribal divisions and
several separate conflicts.
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Received on Fri Jan 20 2012 - 07:46:26 EST