While Libya's escalating conflict among forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, rebels, and now Western air forces led by France and the United Kingdom is drawing the most world attention, the battle for Yemen may more quickly lead to regime change-and one with important consequences for the United States.
Last Friday forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh fired on the central square of Sanaa, the capital, where protesters have gathered to demand government reforms since February. The sniper fire killed at least 52 protesters and wounded dozens. Saleh declared a state of emergency and ordered civilians off the streets, and dismissed every member of his Cabinet in hopes of appeasing growing opposition. But the violence prompted three of Yemen's top generals, including Gen. Ali Mohsen, a powerful tribal figure long close to Saleh, to declare their support for the protesters. They pledged to order troops to protect them against further government attacks.
Their action, coupled with defection among other political leaders, including Yemen's ambassador to Great Britain, effectively draws an end to Saleh's ability to continue as head of state, a post he has held since 1978. Many observers believed he would step down Tuesday with Mohsen engaged in negotiations for the president's departure. But in a televised address Tuesday Saleh pledged to step down by year's end, adding that he would not hand control over to the military generals.
"Any dissent within the military institution will negatively affect the whole nation," Saleh said as warning to a meeting of Yemen's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. "The nation is far greater than the ambition of individuals who want to seize power."
An American student living in Sanaa, not named for security reasons, told me that the streets of the capital remain "very tense," and the state of emergency means curfew from all street activity and has led to more frequent than usual power outages. The sound of gunfire and sirens has increased even in upscale city neighborhoods, she said. Offices and many schools have closed, and the U.S. Embassy has recommended that Americans living there depart. "The rumors of the nation being on the brink of civil war are too serious to ignore," she added.
Saleh's pending departure is significant: Among other street revolutions in the region, this one began as a call for reform, not for the government's ouster. But the weeks of protests themselves seemed to stoke resentment for the president, long seen as a weak and corrupt ally who could only remain in power with U.S. backing.
The Obama administration has provided extensive counterterrorism support to Saleh's government as a counterweight to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)-an increasingly powerful terrorist offshoot that draws support from Osama bin Laden.
"Iraq was yesterday's war. Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said a year ago.
U.S.-led air strikes against AQAP strongholds have killed dozens of militants-but that has not stopped the group and its radical Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar al-Awalaki, from plotting attacks against the United States. These attacks include the Fort Hood shooting and the Christmas Day bomb plot of 2009, along with last fall's attempt to blow up U.S.-bound cargo planes. Currently nearly half the terror suspects detained at Guantanamo are from Yemen.
But many Yemenis believe Saleh used the terrorist threat to blackmail the Obama administration. "The president created these problems," one school administrator told the student. "When Yemen needs more money, he allows al-Qaeda to do something so that America will be nervous and channel in some money."