US Shifts to Seek Removal of Yemen’s Leader, an Ally

Sana, Yemen – The United States, which long supported Yemen’s president, even in the face of recent widespread protests, has now quietly shifted positions and has concluded that he is unlikely to bring about the required reforms and must be eased out of office, according to American and Yemeni officials.

The Obama administration had maintained its support of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in private and refrained from directly criticizing him in public, even as his supporters fired on peaceful demonstrators, because he was considered a critical ally in fighting the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda. This position has fueled criticism of the United States in some quarters for hypocrisy for rushing to oust a repressive autocrat in Libya but not in strategic allies like Yemen and Bahrain.

That position began to shift in the past week, administration officials said. While American officials have not publicly pressed Mr. Saleh to go, they have told allies that they now view his hold on office as untenable, and they believe he should leave.

A Yemeni official said that the American position changed when the negotiations with Mr. Saleh on the terms of his potential departure began a little over a week ago.

“The Americans have been pushing for transfer of power since the beginning” of those negotiations, the official said, but have not said so publicly because “they still were involved in the negotiations.”

Those negotiations now center on a proposal for Mr. Saleh to hand over power to a provisional government led by his vice president until new elections are held. That principle “is not in dispute,” the Yemeni official said, only the timing and mechanism for how he would depart.

It does remain in dispute among the student-led protesters, however, who have rejected any proposal that would give power to a leading official of the Saleh government.

Washington has long had a wary relationship of mutual dependence with Mr. Saleh. The United States has provided weapons, and the Yemeni leader has allowed the United States military and the C.I.A. to strike at Qaeda strongholds. The State Department cables released by WikiLeaks gave a close-up view of that uneasy interdependence: Mr. Saleh told Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the American commander in the Middle East, that the United States could continue missile strikes against Al Qaeda as long as the fiction was maintained that Yemen was conducting them.

“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Mr. Saleh said, according to a cable sent by the American ambassador. At other times, however, Mr. Saleh resisted American requests. In a wry assessment of the United States, he told Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, that Americans are “hot-blooded and hasty when you need us,” but “cold-blooded and British when we need you.”

The negotiations in Sana began after government-linked gunmen killed more than 50 protesters at an antigovernment rally on March 18, prompting a wave of defections of high-level government officials the following week. The American and Yemeni officials who discussed the talks did so on the condition of anonymity because the talks are private and still in progress.

It is not clear whether the United States is discussing a safe passage for Mr. Saleh and his family to another country, but that appears to be the direction of the talks in Sana, the capital.

For Washington, the key to his departure would be arranging a transfer of power that would enable the counterterrorism operation in Yemen to continue.

One administration official referred to that concern last week, saying that the standoff between the president and the protesters “has had a direct adverse impact on the security situation throughout the country.”

“Groups of various stripes — Al Qaeda, Houthis, tribal elements, and secessionists — are exploiting the current political turbulence and emerging fissures within the military and security services for their own gain,” the official said. “Until President Saleh is able to resolve the current political impasse by announcing how and when he will follow through on his earlier commitment to take tangible steps to meet opposition demands, the security situation in Yemen is at risk of further deterioration.”

In recent days, American officials in Washington have hinted at the change in position.

Those “tangible steps,” another official said, could include giving in to the demand that he step down.

At a State Department briefing recently, a spokesman, Mark Toner, was questioned on whether there had been planning for a post-Saleh Yemen. While he did not answer the question directly, he said, in part, that counterterrorism in Yemen “goes beyond any one individual.”

In addition to the huge street demonstrations that have convulsed the country in the last two months, the deteriorating security situation in Yemen includes a Houthi rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and an active Qaeda operation in the southeast. Houthi rebels seized control of Saada Province a week ago, and armed militants have taken over a city in the southern province of Abyan where Al Qaeda is known to have set up a base.

Among Yemenis, there is a feeling that there is a race against the clock to resolve the political impasse before the country implodes. In addition to the security concerns, Yemen faces an economic crisis.

Food prices are rising; the value of the Yemeni currency, the rial, is dropping sharply; and dollars are disappearing from currency exchange shops. According to the World Food Program, the price of wheat flour has increased 45 percent since mid-March and rice by 22 percent.

Analysts have also expressed concern that Mr. Saleh is depleting the national reserves paying for promises to keep himself in power. Mr. Saleh has paid thousands of supporters to come to the capital to stage pro-government protests and given out money to tribal leaders to secure their loyalties. In February he promised to cut income taxes and raise salaries for civil servants and the military to try to tamp down discontent.

“It’s not a recession, it’s not a depression, it’s a mess,” said Mohammed Abulahom, a prominent member of Parliament for Mr. Saleh’s governing party who now supports the protesters.

The fact that the Americans are “seriously engaged in discussion on how to transfer power shows their willingness to figure out a way to transfer power,” he said.

He said the Americans “are doing what ought to be done, and we will see more pressure down the road.”

The criticism of the United States for failing to publicly support Yemen’s protesters has been loudest here, where the protesters insist the United States’ only concern is counterterrorism.

“We are really very, very angry because America until now didn’t help us similar to what Mr. Obama said that Mubarak has to leave now,” said Tawakul Karman, a leader of the antigovernment youth movement. “Obama says he appreciated the courage and dignity of Tunisian people. He didn’t say that for Yemeni people.”

“We feel that we have been betrayed,” she said.

Hamza Alkamaly, 23, a prominent student leader, agreed. “We students lost our trust in the United States,” he said. “We thought the United States would help us in the first time because we are calling for our freedom.”

Late Saturday night, Yemen’s opposition coalition, the Joint Meetings Parties, proposed an outline for a transfer of power that has become the new focus of the talks. The proposal calls for power to be transferred immediately to Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi until presidential elections are held.

The young protesters have rejected the proposal, or any that would leave a leading Saleh official in charge.

Late Sunday, the Gulf Cooperation Council, an association of oil-rich countries in the Persian Gulf, added its backing to the talks, issuing a statement saying it would press the Yemeni government and opposition to work toward an agreement to “overcome the status quo.” The group called for a return to negotiations to “achieve the aspirations of the Yemeni people by means of reforms.”

So far the council, including Yemen’s largest international donor, Saudi Arabia, has not taken part in the negotiations, Yemeni officials said.

There were also more clashes between security forces and protesters on Sunday and Monday in the city of Taiz. Hundreds of people were injured by tear gas, rocks and gunfire. Witnesses said security forces fired at the protesters and into the air. Reuters, speaking by phone to anonymous hospital workers in Taiz, reported at least a dozen protesters had been killed on Monday and 30 injured from the gunfire.

Early Monday, security forces in Hodeidah, a western port city, used to tear gas to break up a protest march on the presidential palace there.

According to Amnesty International, at least 95 people have died during two months of antigovernment protests.

Laura Kasinof reported from Sana, Yemen, and David E. Sanger from Washington.

This story, “U.S. Shifts to Seek Removal of Yemen’s Leader, an Ally” was first published by The New York Times on Sunday, April 3, 2011.