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President Ali Abdullah Saleh (AP/Photo by Hani Mohammed)

The next domino?

International | Protests continue in strategic Arab states, including erratic U.S. ally Yemen

Many residents in Yemen thought Tuesday would be a big day for demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands did turn out on the streets in cities across the country-what's become a commonplace account of uprisings across the region-but most of them were demonstrating in favor of the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen, strategically situated at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, has been closely watched as possibly the next domino in the growing chain of falling governments so far confined to North Africa. Sustained and significant upheaval there could spell trouble for neighbor Saudi Arabia and signal growing conflict on the Arabian Peninsula.

According to an American who works in Yemen, who asked not to be identified due to the security risks, classes were canceled and foreigners were encouraged by UN security officers to stay off the streets early this week. In some cases cancellations were meant to encourage young people to demonstrate against the government rather than out of concern for public safety. But opposition coalition Joint Meetings Parties (JMP) wasn't able to muster the turnout planned in the capital of Sanaa, while pro-government groups rallied in response to an expected demonstration. The JMP's lack of clarity on where it stands, plus its talks with Yemeni government officials, apparently has confused many residents. At the same time, it has mobilized thousands of university students, and has had greater turnouts in the port city of Aden and in Taiz.

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Yemenis were among the first to take to the streets following the Tunisian revolt in January. President Saleh, in power for 32 years, has been an erratic ally for the United States. On Tuesday he accused the United States and Israel of instigating protests against his regime. And while taking U.S. funds (over $250 million in military aid since 2005) to fight a growing threat from al-Qaeda's forces in Yemen-plus tamping down a Shiite-led (and Iranian-backed) insurgency at the northern border with Saudi Arabia-Saleh has also expressed support for Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, and he has struggled to maintain territorial control against a variety of Islamist insurgents. The 2010 cargo bomb threats, as well as Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abulmutallab, who tried in 2009 to blow up a Detroit-bound aircraft, all have been traced to Yemen.

But Yemen is unlike Libya in that most don't regard Saleh as a dictator, and it is unlike Egypt in that its government does not include strong military backing. For those reasons, protesters in Sanaa's Tahrir Square have not called for Saleh's immediate removal, as those in Cairo's Tahrir Square demanded of President Hosni Mubarak. Instead, the JMP has held talks with Saleh's party aimed at democratic reforms. And Saleh announced last month that he would not run for reelection in 2013, nor align his son as his successor. He also dropped a previous campaign to seek constitutional changes allowing him to be president for life.

Reforms are unlikely to address greater liberty for the country's estimated 20,000 Christians. They make up less than 1 percent of the country's 24 million people, a population that is mostly Sunni Muslims.

Around the region, the fallout from civil unrest now entering its third month continued. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that the amphibious ship USS Kearsarge-with 700 Marines on board-would be moved from the Gulf Aden through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, where it can closely patrol the coast of Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday that Obama administration officials "are taking no options off the table so long as the Libyan government continues to turn its guns on its own people," as estimates of those killed in Libya passed 1,000.

While the United States continues to press for the ouster of longstanding dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, concern is now growing that the Gulf state of Oman could be the next U.S. ally facing crisis. Tanks were used to disperse protesters there Tuesday, and one protester was killed in clashes on Sunday. The demonstrators are agitating for everything from an end to corruption to the cancellation of all home loans. The country of 2 million has been ruled for four decades by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, who is largely popular. Oman holds a strategic position as it shares with Iran control of the oil tanker routes through the Strait of Hormuz.


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