In shift, US now seeks negotiated exit of Yemen’s president

Saleh unlikely to bring reform

Antigovernment protesters demanded the ouster of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, outside Sana University. Antigovernment protesters demanded the ouster of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, outside Sana University. (Ammar Awad/ Reuters)
By Laura Kasinof
New York Times / April 4, 2011

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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 United States 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 US officials have not publicly pressed Saleh to go, they have told allies and some reporters that they now view his hold on office as untenable, and they believe he should leave.

A Yemeni official said that the US position changed when the negotiations with 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 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.

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.

The negotiations 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 US 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 negotiating a safe passage for Saleh and his family, and residency in another country, but that appears to be the direction of the talks in Sana, the capital.

Yesterday, thousands of women calling for the ouster of Saleh were attacked by police with sticks and rocks, setting off a furious battle with male protesters that left several people hurt, activists said.

The women were marching down a main street in the southern town of Taiz shouting “peaceful, peaceful,’’ when they were attacked, activist Ghazi al-Samei said.

Three of the young men suffered serious gunshot wounds when police opened fire, protester Bushra al-Maqtari said by telephone. She said over 200 more suffered breathing problems caused by inhaling tear gas.

Army tanks and armored cars stopped other demonstrators from entering Taiz, the site of some of the largest and angriest protests against Saleh’s rule.

Thousands of Syrian activists marched through a Damascus suburb yesterday in funerals for those killed in new protests, as the president appointed a former agriculture minister to form a new government as part of limited gestures to those calling for sweeping political change.

Human rights groups and activists say at least 10 people were killed during protests Friday in Douma, just outside the Syrian capital, and in nearby areas.

Yesterday, a witness said thousands of people gathered for prayers before the funeral of eight of the victims at Douma’s Grand Mosque, which was at the center of Friday’s protests.

The crowds shouted “We want Freedom’’ and “Douma and Daraa, one hand,’’ in a reference to a drought-stricken and impoverished city in the south from where Syria’s protests began on March 18.

The witness said the two other people killed in areas near Douma were also buried yesterday. All the coffins were draped with Syrian flags, he added. He said there was no sign of security forces in Douma, adding that mourning tents for receiving condolences were set up in the city later.

President Bashar Assad, facing the biggest challenge yet to his 11-year rule, has made a series of overtures that protesters say do not satisfy their demands for real change.

The president sacked his government last week in answer to growing cries for reform in Syria, one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. On Thursday, he set up committees to look into the deaths of civilians during two weeks of unrest and replacing decades-old state-of-emergency laws.

Yesterday, he appointed Adel Safar, the former agriculture minister, to form a new government. Safar, 58, is seen as a respectable figure in a government that many had accused of corruption. Safar holds a doctorate in agricultural sciences from a French polytechnic center and was the dean of Damascus University’s agricultural faculty from 1997-2000.

The violence in Douma Friday was some of the worst seen in two weeks of bloody protests in Syria, during which at least 80 people have died, according to rights groups.

Activists said protesters had come under attack by security forces as they left the Grand Mosque chanting slogans for freedom. The troops hit people with clubs and threw stones before firing tear gas and finally live ammunition.

Authorities blamed Friday’s bloodshed on “armed gangs’’ and Assad has described the unrest as a foreign-influenced conspiracy against Syria.

In Bahrain yesterday, the government lifted its ban on the main opposition newspaper after the editor resigned. The one-day ban was the latest step in a crackdown against protests rocking the tiny, strategic island kingdom. The paper, Al-Wasat, was expected to appear again today.