As Yemen's new leader steps up al-Qaida fight, ousted strongman undermines
him from sidelines
* Article by: AHMED AL-HAJ and AYA BATRAWY , Associated Press
* Updated: March 16, 2012 - 1:43 PM
SANAA, Yemen - It was a stunning attack by al-Qaida in a country that is one
of the world's hottest fronts against the terror group. Militants rampaged
through an army camp in southern Yemen before dawn, catching soldiers asleep
and killing more than 180. Amid the turmoil, the defense minister ordered
helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
The air force commander, Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, refused, according to a
senior official at the main air force base in Sanaa.
Notably, al-Ahmar is a half brother of ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Many in the military and government say the refusal last week is one example
of how Saleh is working behind the scenes to obstruct the new U.S.-backed
government as it tries to bring reform and step up the fight against
al-Qaida militants in this impoverished Arab nation.
Saleh was the fourth ruler to fall in the Arab Spring wave of revolts in the
Mideast, stepping down in the face of protests after more than three decades
in power. But while he's no longer president, he has effectively emerged as
a parallel ruler: His loyalists and relatives still pervade state bodies and
military, and officials who back the new government say he uses those levers
to persistently undermine them.
The goal, they fear, is to pave the way for Saleh to return to power by
showing the new government is incapable of dealing with the country's
multiple problems. Saleh has set up an office in the giant, extravagant
Sanaa mosque that he built during his rule and that bears his name, just
around the corner from the presidential palace. There he meets with his
loyalists and powerful tribal leaders who back him.
The result is constant friction between Saleh's supporters and the new
president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The Americans hope Hadi can reinvigorate the fight against al-Qaida, which
many Yemenis say Saleh's military waged only halfheartedly. Al-Qaida's
branch here is seen by Washington as the most dangerous arm of the terror
group after repeated attempts to carry out bombings on American soil. It
only grew stronger during the past year's turmoil, when militants seized
control of several towns in the south, including Zinjibar, a provincial
U.S. officials say the Pentagon plans to assist Hadi with about $75 million
for military training and equipment. After talks in Sanaa last month,
President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said
Hadi was "committed to destroying al-Qaida."
But Brennan acknowledged Hadi could face resistance in reforming an army
that is seen as hobbled by corruption and divided loyalties. He said some in
the military "have tried to take advantage of their positions for personal
Restructuring the military, he told reporters, "threatens their personal
One of Hadi's first acts after being sworn in Feb. 25 was to order the
removal of the top military commander in the south, Gen. Mahdi Maqoula, a
Saleh loyalist. Officers complained that Maqoula was hindering supplies to
forces fighting militants.
But Maqoula remained in his position for another week, several military
officials in the south said. During that week, ammunition and weapons from a
military storehouse in the south disappeared, apparently smuggled out and
sold, the officials said. A supply of sophisticated sniper scopes vanished,
they said, blaming Maqoula and his fellow officers for the theft. The
officers spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the
Maqoula finally left his post on March 4. Hours before he stepped down, a
force of al-Qaida fighters carried out the surprise, pre-dawn attack on the
Carried ashore by boats from the sea, al-Qaida militants, including
non-Yemenis and Saudis were dressed in military uniforms, officials said.
The fighters sprayed tents where soldiers were sleeping with gunfire and
killed at least 185. They dumped their bodies in the desert, some beheaded,
and paraded dozens of captured soldiers through a nearby town.
The massacre fueled accusations that Saleh loyalists in the military have
been unwilling to fight militants - or even have colluded with them.
The replacement of Maqoula does appear to have brought progress in the
fight. A series of airstrikes hit militant positions since Friday. Yemeni
military officials say the strikes were carried out by the United States and
say they reflect improved communication and intelligence under the new
commander, Maj. Gen. Salem Katton. American officials have not confirmed any
U.S. role in the strikes.
But security and military officials say Saleh supporters in the Interior
Ministry still impede the flow of security information to higher-ups in
Hadi's government, including information on al-Qaida militants. They like
other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity
of the situation.
Aden's newly appointed police chief, Sadek Haid, acknowledged that "the
situation is very rough, but we will work on improving security." He also
said two shipments of weapons have disappeared recently.
After nearly a year of protests against his authoritarian rule, Saleh handed
over his powers in November to Hadi, his vice president, under a U.S.-backed
agreement. Saleh left the country for medical treatment in the U.S., raising
opponents' hopes he would live in exile. The prime minister appointed by
Hadi, Mohammed Basindwa, pleaded with Brennan to ensure Saleh stayed out,
warning his return "means another war."
But days after Hadi was elevated to president in February elections, Saleh
returned and vowed to remain involved in politics as an "opposition leader."
Now authority is divided.
Members of Saleh's National Congress Party remain in ministerial posts in
the unity government. Saleh's son, Ahmed, heads both the powerful Republican
Guard and special counterterrorism forces. One of Saleh's nephews, Yahia,
heads the Central Security forces, and another nephew, Ammar, is the
intelligence chief. Saleh supporters control the government Al-Thawra
newspaper and others have resisted efforts to restructure state television,
giving the ex-president a powerful platform.
"Our people will remain present in every institution," Saleh proclaimed
Saturday in a speech from his mosque. "Two months have passed since this
creation of this weak government, which doesn't know the ABCs of politics.
It won't be able to build a thing or put one brick on top of another."
Basindwa has complained to Hadi that Saleh loyalists in ministries block
orders from his government, an official in Basindwa's office said, speaking
on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal workings.
On Monday, tribal fighters tried to storm the Finance Ministry, angered
because the ministry cut off funds that Saleh had been funneling to the
tribe's leader, according to a ministry official.
The next day, traffic police barricaded their headquarters to prevent a new
chief of Sanaa's traffic police from entering his office. The chief had been
named to replace a Saleh loyalist.
Political expert Abdel-Bari Taher says Saleh wants to show Yemenis and the
United States that without him, the government will fail and security will
spiral out of control.
"This is his attempt to tell the opposition that he is still present and
send a message to the United States that they lost an ally who could secure
the country," said Taher, who works at a government think tank.
Batrawy reported from Cairo. AP correspondent Lee Keath contributed from
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Received on Fri Mar 16 2012 - 10:18:56 EDT