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Rejoicing Amidst Confusion in Yemen as Leader Goes to Saudi Arabia

Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office)

Washington – Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday for urgent medical treatment of wounds sustained in a bold attack on the presidential compound, Saudi officials said, abruptly shifting the political calculus that has allowed him to cling to power despite months of protest and violence.

On Sunday in the capital of Sana, Yemenis crowded into Change Square to celebrate. Some uniformed soldiers joined those dancing and singing patriotic songs and were hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd, according to The Associated Press. But Mr. Saleh’s sudden departure could pose a serious challenge for the United States, which has been deeply concerned about Yemen’s rising chaos, analysts say. The government has already lost control of some outlying provinces, and Al Qaeda and other jihadists appear to be exploiting the turmoil to solidify their base in the country.

Saudi officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Saleh had agreed to leave only when his condition worsened after Friday’s attack. President Obama’s top adviser on Yemen, John O. Brennan, spoke by phone Saturday with the Yemeni vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, who news reports said became acting president under the Yemeni Constitution.

The Saudis are likely to make sure Mr. Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years, does not return as president, analysts said — a goal they and other regional Arab leaders have tried unsuccessfully to arrange for weeks.

But even though his departure could ease tensions in Sana in the short term, there is no clear plan in place for a lasting political transition. In that vacuum, many fear that Yemen’s opposition factions and youth protesters might begin fighting among themselves, adding to the troubles of tribal violence in the north and secessionist efforts in the south.

The threat of more political disorder puts tremendous pressure on Saudi Arabia, the country’s powerful neighbor and patron, and on the United States, which had counted on Mr. Saleh as an ally against terrorists. The Saudis have seemed unsure about how to handle Yemen in recent months, as they struggled to calm the revolutionary energies across the region. For years, Mr. Saleh had kept the peace in a country riven by tribal jealousies, but the Saudis — prizing stability above all — have grown anxious as his control slipped in the face of protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring.

The brazen attack Friday, which Mr. Saleh blamed on longtime tribal rivals, the Ahmars, allowed the Saudis to intervene decisively. The Saudi leadership not only choreographed Mr. Saleh’s treatment and departure but also accepted six other high-ranking Yemeni officials wounded in the attack and brokered a cease-fire with the Ahmars’ powerful tribal militia.

The militia and the government began fighting in the streets two weeks ago after Mr. Saleh reneged for the third time on a Saudi-led deal to leave office, though it remains unclear who initiated the hostilities. Although relations between Mr. Saleh and the Ahmars soured several years ago, the rift widened recently as the Ahmars began supporting the street protesters, doling out payments to keep their movement alive despite a government crackdown.

It was unclear Saturday night if the truce with the militia was holding, with some reports saying Sana, the capital, was mostly quiet and others saying the boom of artillery fire could be heard again in a neighborhoods that is an Ahmar family stronghold.

The details of Friday’s attack, as well as information about Mr. Saleh’s health, remain somewhat murky. Yemeni official say either a rocket or mortar shell struck a mosque in the presidential compound where Mr. Saleh and other top officials were praying. Government officials insisted that Mr. Saleh suffered light injuries or “scratches,” even though the president himself noted that the blast was strong enough to kill seven guards.

But Mr. Saleh delayed a speech to the nation for several hours Friday, then issued only a two-minute audio recording that ran on state television with an old photo of him. He sounded weary and sedated as he told the country the Ahmars were behind the strike. Since then, rumors about the nature of his wounds have abounded, and some Arab news reports said he had pieces of wood embedded in his body.

Soon after the attack, government forces began firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells on the house of Hamidh al-Ahmar, the Ahmar family’s political standard-bearer. A spokesman for Mr. Ahmar said that 19 people were killed in the attacks on his house on Friday. The Ahmars have denied any responsibility for the strike on the presidential compound.

Sadeq al-Ahmar, the eldest of the Ahmar brothers, confirmed Saturday that the Saudis had arranged a cease-fire and said he would respect it. But he added that the government had not followed through on its promises to remove security forces from the area surrounding the Ahmar compound in the Hasaba neighborhood in northern Sana, where the fighting has been concentrated in the past two weeks.

South of Sana on Saturday, government forces appeared to withdraw from Taiz, a major city in Yemen’s central highlands where protesters and tribesmen sympathetic to their cause have taken up arms against government troops. Tanks had been deployed in the city on Friday, and many residents feared a repeat of the brutal crackdown that took place last week, in which many protesters were killed. But after more clashes between armed tribesmen and troops, the military appeared to have retreated to their bases.

“There are no soldiers in the streets today; no checkpoints inside the city. It’s only the armed tribesmen who came to protect us,” an activist, Riyadh al-Adeeb, said.

Some analysts said that Saudi Arabia would not have agreed to allow Mr. Saleh to come to Riyadh without extracting a promise that he would finally resign as president.

In recent weeks, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia personally urged Mr. Saleh to sign the deal sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation body of Yemen’s Arab neighbors. The agreement called on him to cede power in exchange for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family.

The United States has also pressed Mr. Saleh to step down, seeing an orderly departure as the start of a transition that would ease Yemen’s political crisis and allow authorities to regain control of Yemen’s outlying provinces and the jihadists there.

Last week, President Obama sent Mr. Brennan to Saudi Arabia to try to help find a way to ease Mr. Saleh out. The visit underscored the United States’ lack of leverage with Mr. Saleh, who — despite his cooperation on counterterrorism — has for years been a frustratingly inconsistent partner.

Now, Saudi Arabia finds itself in a position of power, with the wounded Yemeni president more dependent than ever on his oil-rich neighbors. But the Saudis — always uncomfortable with Yemen’s complex and poisonous politics — face difficult choices.

If Mr. Saleh steps down, they are left with the responsibility of fostering a new political order in a country with democratic aspirations but few working institutions, even as they struggle to beat back the revolutionary currents in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“It’s a real irony: the Saudis usually oppose change, but in Yemen they have become the midwives of change,” said Bernard Haykel, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton who has written extensively on both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. “They will have to decide what change means in this context, and it will not be easy.”

Reporting was contributed by Laura Kasinof from Hagerstown, Md.; Neil MacFarquhar from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Scott Shane from Washington; and Nasser Arrabyee from Sana, Yemen.

The article “Protesters in Yemen Rejoice as Leader Goes to Saudi Arabia” originally appeared in The New York Times.

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