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Analysis: Yemen sinks deeper in conflict as Saleh clings on

Oct 3, 2011, 6:05 a.m.
Defected officers, who are backing the anti-government protesters, patrol an area of constant conflict with soldiers of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa October 3, 2011. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Erika Solomon and Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA (Reuters) - After months of protests, bloodshed and diplomacy, Yemen is mired in a contest between the president and his rivals that risks tipping a dirt-poor nation bordering oil giant Saudi Arabia into civil war and economic collapse.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh's struggle against an army general and tribal chiefs who were once powerful allies has almost eclipsed popular demonstrations against his 33-year rule that had chimed with pro-democracy Arab uprisings elsewhere.

Such protests swiftly removed autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt this year, but it took a prolonged and bloody struggle to oust Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. Popular revolts in Syria and Yemen have also turned violent, with the outcome still in doubt.

Political strife has further loosened state control over much of Yemen, allowing free rein to northern rebels, southern secessionists and al Qaeda militants, even as drastic shortages of food, water, fuel and jobs stalk its 24 million people.

Yemenis are wearied by bouts of fighting between Saleh loyalists and opposition forces that have punctuated diplomatic efforts to induce the veteran president to relinquish power.

"We keep thinking we're close to an agreement and then it slips away again," said one senior Western diplomat. "There are very powerful forces at work that don't want an agreement because of their own financial interests, their own skins."

Even within Saleh's ruling party, patience is wearing thin.

"If we want to survive as a party in the future, it's in our interest to sign a political solution as quickly as possible," said one party elder who had once encouraged Saleh to stay on.

WASTED ARGUMENTS

Well-connected businessmen have also lobbied politicians to sign a deal, saying responsibility for Yemen's economic nightmare will fall squarely on the GPC if no deal is signed.

Such arguments seem wasted on the president, locked in a triangular struggle with his former allies -- the Ahmar family, which leads a confederation of Yemen's well-armed tribes, and a rebel general and Saleh kinsman, Ali Mohsen.

The Ahmars and Mohsen defected separately earlier this year, but have little in common with the youthful protesters staging daily anti-Saleh demonstrations for the past eight months.

Saleh, Mohsen and the Ahmars each hint they will stand down if their opponents do likewise, yet violent brinkmanship still goes on, turning Sanaa, the capital, into a patchwork of districts controlled by government and opposition forces.

"On some level they want a military conflict because they think they can come out on top. Then they think again, they are not sure, so we end up in this standoff," one negotiator said.

Foreign powers fear the turmoil in this fractured Arabian Peninsula state is emboldening al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, despite the killing of its chief English-language propagandist, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a U.S. drone strike last week.

Violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, worsening a crisis that could spill into Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries trying to ease Saleh out with a transition plan.

All parties share the blame for holding up the deal, but analysts say Saleh and his family are the prime obstacles.

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