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      Who's Playing Whom in Yemen?

      The US has found itself pushing for Saleh to step down despite concerns opposition leaders may oppose US anti-terror efforts - and Saleh knows it.
      By Gabe Kahn.
      First Publish: 6/15/2011, 7:54 PM / Last Update: 6/15/2011, 10:44 PM

       

      The Obama administration says it has been working for months in concert with Yemen's Gulf neighbors to persuade Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from power, even as that move puts its counter-terror efforts on the line.

      Saleh, who was evacuated for emergency medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after being wounded by bombs planted in the presidential mosque more than a week ago, is slated to return to Yemen when he is sufficiently recovered, according to Saudi officials.

      While the US continues to press for Saleh to step down, in the hope that a political solution could preempt any plan by the Yemeni leader of 33 years to return, it has not openly opposed Saleh's return to Yemen.

      US State Department counter-terror coordinator Daniel Benjamin said he is hopeful that counter-terror efforts will continue in Yemen "as the political transition moves along and a new government takes hold".

      But other US officials say Yemeni opposition groups have voiced strong criticism of the US counter-terror program in Yemen and vowed to stop it if they come to power, leading to speculation the US may fear the future in Yemen without the very same man they say they want out.

      Since 2009, Saleh has allowed JSOC to employ a mixture of armed and unarmed drones, ship-fired missiles, small special operations teams working with Yemenis, and occasional war plane bombing runs, according to US and Yemeni officials. Permission was on a case-by-case basis, and waxed and waned depending on the mood of the mercurial Yemeni president.

      Some observers suggest the US saying it wants Saleh out, while not opposing his return and not moving to oust him, may be a way for the US to force Saleh or his successors to give them a freer hand in exchange for US support.

      With Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) essentially in control of large swathes of Yemen, the Yemeni government is now increasingly reliant on hopes that the US will will be forced to remove some of the enemies threatening the Saleh's regime.

      That new target-at-will attitude was reinforced after the attempt on Saleh's life, both US and Yemeni officials say. US forces are also taking advantage of the fact that more al-Qaeda operatives are exposing themselves, as they move from their hideouts across the country to command troops challenging the government.

      But the US makes a full court press against AQAP if it finds itself officially seeking the abdication of a man whose government supports anti-terror operations,  knowing full well many in the opposition do not - and is planning for a worst-case scenario of its own making.

      "We believe fighting terror is in Yemen's national interests and not just about one man", Benjamin told the press on Tuesday.

      But the 33-year-survivor Saleh knows full well that if he goes, his government goes with him - and with it support for the American counter-terror campaign in Yemen.

      Unless the US removes his opponents for him, that is.