(Adds news of Saleh’s injuries in fourth paragraph.)
June 7 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. called on Yemen’s leaders to proceed with an immediate transition of power even as the Obama administration works with Saudi Arabia to try to prevent the country from descending into civil war.
“The instability and lack of security afflicting Yemen cannot be addressed until there’s some process that’s going to lead to the economic and political reforms” the people are seeking, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday at the State Department.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is recuperating in a Saudi military hospital after surgery for injuries sustained in a June 3 rocket attack on his presidential compound, vowed to return within days, raising the prospect of further violence and instability.
Today, U.S. administration officials said Saleh was more badly burned than originally thought, raising doubts about his ability to return. The Yemeni leader has reportedly received bad burns to his face and to 40 percent of his body, according to officials not authorized to speak on the record.
The Saudi cabinet, chaired by King Abdullah, called for Saleh to accept an accord to give up power after 33 years in office, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
Though Saleh has been a strong ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, U.S. officials say counterterrorism work would continue with other leaders -- a claim questioned by analysts such as Simon Henderson and Daniel Green of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Terrorist attacks on the U.S. have been planned in Yemen. Its strategic location in the Arabian Gulf, the source of almost 20 percent of U.S. oil supplies, makes the country’s stability an administration priority.
Yemen’s tribal divisions and power centers mean the U.S. has limited ability to shape events or curb violence there, analysts say. The Saudis have had influence in Yemen through proximity and money.
“There’s an enormous amount at stake,” Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in a telephone interview. “We’re not talking about implementing democracy in Yemen. I think that right now the focus and emphasis is on trying to avert civil war.”
The U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, has been meeting with Yemeni officials and the opposition, trying to understand what steps they are planning next, Clinton said.
The U.S. has received no indication from Saleh whether he intends to return and is unsure of his plans, according to one of the administration officials who couldn’t talk on the record.
Beyond trying to speak to Saleh and others on the ground, the U.S. has limited options, said Mark Quarterman, director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The U.S. is finding there’s not really much they can do now,” Quarterman said in a telephone interview. “It can urge groups to talk, it can urge processes that will lead to a solution or reconciliation, but this is going to be decided in the mountains of Yemen, not in any office anywhere.”
Yemen ranks 15th out of 60 countries in the 2010 Failed States Index created by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, with only Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan in worse shape in Asia and the Middle East.
The government has waged a battle against Shiite Muslim secessionists in the north, while coping with a separate secessionist movement and the militant group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the south.
Anti-government tribal groups have fought Saleh’s forces since the president refused on May 22 to adhere to a Gulf Cooperation Council accord that called for him to step down within 30 days, with parliamentary elections to be held. It was the third time that talks led by the six-member GCC -- consisting of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- had failed.
U.S. and Saudi interests are closely aligned on Yemen, Coleman and others say. While the U.S. concern is a power vacuum from a security perspective, the Saudis, who share a porous 1,000-mile border with Yemen, would also have to contend with poor Yemenis flooding over their border looking for work.
“They fear it from an economic perspective, let alone the Islamic radicalism, the extremism, the terrorism, the drugs” that could pour across the border, Coleman said.
Finding the right mix that will be the most stable outcome for Yemen will have to incorporate all players. “There are a lot of different moving pieces here,” she said.
The focus of that transition will have to be on preventing civil war, said Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based branch of the Washington policy group. “That’s the nightmare for everyone.”
“If there is a civil war it is going to touch everyone, the U.S., Saudi, Yemenis,” Sharqieh said in a telephone interview. “It would be the ideal environment for al-Qaeda.”
Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties, the main opposition coalition, said it supports the move that transferred power to Vice President Abduraboo Mansur Hadi after Saleh’s departure.
The vice president is assuming Saleh’s duties “until the president returns,” Abdu Janadi, deputy information minister, said in a phone interview. Hadi has said Saleh will return in the “coming days,” according to state-run Saba news agency.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday that the U.S. counterterrorism efforts don’t depend on Saleh’s return. Those initiatives are coordinated with the Yemeni government and not with an individual, Toner said.
Analysts Henderson and Green warn that it will matter which individuals head the government. Hadi has only a small power base, they wrote in an analysis.
The new leader is likely to spend his initial months, even years, maneuvering to solidify power, they said.
“This does not bode well for U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism cooperation,” Green and Henderson wrote. “Like Saleh, a weak president might see the local al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as both an enemy and an ally.”
In October 2010, Yemeni militants attempted to send two parcel bombs to U.S. synagogues. The bombs were seized in the U.K. and Dubai. Yemen also serves as the base of Anwar al- Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical Islamic cleric who intelligence services say is responsible for planning a shooting rampage that killed 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, last year and the attempted bombing of a plane bound for Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.
The U.S. has provided Yemen with about $300 million a year in security and humanitarian assistance. For the 2010 fiscal year, military aid accounted for $155 million, including Huey helicopters, Humvee vehicles and night-goggles, according to the Pentagon.
--With assistance from Margot Habiby in Dallas, Mark Shenk in New York, Glen Carey in Riyadh and Leslie Hoffecker in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, Robin Meszoly.
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