Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Yemen's President Agrees to Leave

Yemen's President Agrees to Step Down

“Our Revolution will start today”

SAN'A, Yemen—President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen agreed to step down on Wednesday after 33 years in power, becoming the fourth Arab leader swept away by protests this year and launching his violence-wracked country into a new era of uncertainty.

The president, who had steadfastly refused to sign a deal that would pave the way for his exit, made a surprise trip to Saudi Arabia, where he signed off on a deal to transfer power to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi within 30 days. The agreement calls for a new president to be elected within three months and would hand significant power to opposition parties, Yemen state television and opposition officials said.

Just after the agreement was announced, protesters massed in San'a's central Change Square. Some angrily denounced its provision of immunity from prosecution for Mr. Saleh. Protesters blamed the country's established opposition parties for letting the leader escape after months of bloodshed they say killed more than 1,000 people.

"No immunity to the killer Saleh," they shouted. "We will not go home until justice prevails."

Yemen has been ravaged by violence and lawlessness in recent months, as forces opposed to Mr. Saleh fought battles against his allies in the streets of the capital. Amid the chaos, militant Islamist groups, including some sympathetic with al Qaeda, have expanded their sway in the south of the country.

"We are sorry for what happened in Yemen and we were hoping that [a] transfer of power would take place democratically," Mr. Saleh said in a speech after signing the deal in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. "The differences created problems for national unity and destroyed what was built in the last couple of years."

The U.S., which had for months pushed for Mr. Saleh's departure, welcomed his decision to transfer executive powers immediately. President Barack Obama said in a statement that the U.S. will stand by the Yemini people, as they "begin addressing an array of formidable challenges and chart a more secure and prosperous path for the future."

But while the signing was an important first step, it "won't solve all of Yemen's problems immediately," a senior Obama administration official said.

It was unclear what impact the move will have on the U.S. fight against the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, a campaign in which the Saleh government had been a critical if fitful ally.U.S. officials
say Mr. Saleh and his security services have been particularly helpful in recent months in providing intelligence for drone strikes that have have killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a charismatic American-born cleric, and others.

The Pentagon has taken steps to try to ensure that counterterrorism cooperation continues following Mr. Saleh's departure. These have included building relationships with a wider range of military commanders who could remain in positions of influence after Mr. Saleh's exit.

"Our shared interest with the Yemeni government in fighting terrorism, particularly defeating AQAP, goes beyond specific individuals," said Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby.

The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen nonetheless sits in a strategically critical location at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, where one-fifth of the world's oil exports transit to world markets.

Beginning in January, Mr. Saleh faced large youth demonstrations calling for his resignation. In recent months, longtime allies among Yemen's traditional tribal power brokers turned against him. After he was seriously injured in a June assassination attempt and taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment, he agreed to sign on to the power-transfer deal, negotiated by Arab states in the Persian Gulf.

But until Wednesday, he had repeatedly backed out of opportunities to finalize the agreement. He returned to Yemen several months ago and appeared to dig in further.
It is unclear what caused Mr. Saleh to fly unannounced to Riyadh to finalize the agreement in front of Yemeni opposition leaders, officials from the Gulf states and several Western allies and an envoy from the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters after a phone call with Mr. Saleh that the president would soon fly to New York City for medical treatment. The nature of the treatment wasn't immediately clear.

Mr. Hadi, who has served as Mr. Saleh's vice president for 17 years, is expected to form a national reconciliation government, bringing on board politicians from all factions. Half the ministers are expected to be members of the former ruling party and its allies, while the other half will be chosen from the traditional opposition.

Mr. Hadi will preside over a military council to prepare an overall restructuring of the armed forces, ensuring that no faction has the monopoly over the strategic state institution. The vice president, who hails from the country's south, is generally accepted by opposition factions as a credible person to lead after Mr. Saleh.

The agreement doesn't lay out a formal role for the youth protesters who have demonstrated continuously for nine months, demanding not just Mr. Saleh's ouster but also sweeping political reforms. The deal says the government will have to open a dialogue with the youth aimed at ensuring their demands are met.

In San'a, young protesters danced and celebrated late Wednesday. But they also said they had achieved only a fraction of their goals.

"Our revolution will start today," they shouted. "Saleh's fall is Step One."

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