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Amid revolt, Yemen leader exits country for medical aid

Antigovernment protesters held a defaced portrait of President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration for his ouster in Sana, Yemen. Saleh was wounded in a rocket attack. Antigovernment protesters held a defaced portrait of President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration for his ouster in Sana, Yemen. Saleh was wounded in a rocket attack. (Ammar Awad/ Reuters)
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londono
Washington Post / June 5, 2011

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NAIROBI — Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, transferred power to his deputy yesterday and flew to Saudi Arabia, raising the prospect that a key US ally in the fight against Al Qaeda had lost his grip on a nation tumbling into chaos.

An official in the president’s office confirmed that Saleh had left the country for Saudi Arabia and that the vice president has taken over. The state-run Saudi Press Agency said Saleh arrived in Saudi Arabia late yesterday.

With an active Al Qaeda branch in Yemen, ambitious enough to claim the mantle of Osama bin Laden in the near future, Saleh’s departure could pose one of the most significant policy challenges for the Obama administration in the months ahead.

Most analysts believe it is unlikely Saleh will return, potentially ending the reign of a dictator who had become an important ally against Al Qaeda. For months now, he has faced intense pressure from within Yemen, neighboring countries, as well as his key ally the United States to step down.

“Once he steps out of Yemen there’s a major question as to whether he ever returns,’’ said Juan Zarate, who served as counterterrorism adviser to George W. Bush during his presidency. “If in fact he leaves, I’m very pessimistic as to what follows. I think it turns very messy very quickly, creating all sorts of breathing space for [Al Qaeda] and problems for the United States.’’

The sudden departure, apparently undertaken so Saleh can received medical treatment for injuries suffered in an attack Friday, leaves behind a nation on the verge of economic collapse, with a violent power struggle among rival tribesmen already underway, and with no clear plan for a transition of power.

“The situation is very murky,’’ said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University. “What happens with his family? Do his forces crumble? Who steps in to fill any vacuum? At this point, there is no road map or someone very obvious waiting in the wings.’’

Christopher Boucek, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Saleh’s departure could potentially lead to power being transferred to the vice president, which could lead to a transitional process. But there could be even more intense violence, given the animosity between Saleh’s supporters and those of the Ahmar clan, whose tribesmen have spearheaded the effort to topple Saleh.

“His son and nephews may try to finish off the Ahmars,’’ said Boucek. “The regime’s power lies in the military and security branches, the guys who have been fighting, and where do they go? They may think their only option is to fight.’’

Also yesterday, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah brokered a temporary cease-fire between Yemeni government forces and opposition tribesmen, tribal leaders said.

The deal followed a day of intense fighting in the capital, Sana, on Friday that heightened fears of growing lawlessness in a country where Washington is trying to root out a sophisticated branch of Al Qaeda.

After Saleh and top officials were wounded in the afternoon attack on the presidential palace in southern Sanaa, government forces reportedly struck tribal leaders’ homes with artillery fire, killing 19 people and wounding 40, tribal leaders said.

Yemen’s state news agency reported yesterday that the country’s prime minister, Ali Mujawar, and the speaker of Parliament, Yahya al-Raee, were among a handful of dignitaries flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

Saleh was wounded in the head, a Yemeni official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s condition.

Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi said Saleh was in “good health and is able to make decisions.’’

Yemen’s crisis began this year as protesters inspired by uprisings unfolding elsewhere in the Arab world took to the streets demanding the ouster of the 65-year-old president, who has been in power for 33 years.

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