For Yemen’s Leader, a Balancing Act Gets Harder


SANA, Yemen

PRESIDENT Ali Abdullah Saleh’s face is everywhere in Yemen. He stares out from billboards, shop windows and living room walls, always with the same proud expression: eyes glinting, chest thrust out as if to confront a challenger. After 30 years in power, Mr. Saleh has become almost synonymous with the state in this arid, desperately poor corner of southern Arabia.

But lately the president, 66, known for his wicked sense of humor, has been uncharacteristically dour. A war with northern Shiite rebels has spread to the outskirts of the capital. Terrorist attacks have led embassies and foreign companies to evacuate their employees. With an insurrection rising in the south as well, the turmoil has renewed fears that this conservative Muslim country of 23 million, a longtime haven for jihadists, could collapse into another Afghanistan.

Mr. Saleh, his gruff voice tinged with anger, dismissed the rebels as “racists” who want to return to Yemen’s ancient system of religious rule. They have won popular support by associating his government with the United States, he said during an hourlong interview inside the sprawling, high-walled presidential palace compound.

“At the same time, we are facing attacks by Al Qaeda,” he said, sitting in a sun-dappled outdoor gazebo, ringed by advisers clad in dark suits. “So we are facing two dangers.”

But some critics say one of the greatest dangers is Mr. Saleh himself. His corruption and neglect, as well as his history of coddling Islamic extremists for political support, have helped fuel the uprising against him, a high-ranking Yemeni official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.

THE president has mastered the art of playing enemies against one another, his opponents say, leaving the country in a state of controlled chaos and doing little to address its desperate needs: water, education, development. A culture of corruption has hollowed out government ministries and damaged the army, which is struggling to put down a much smaller rebel force.

Mr. Saleh is also accused by critics at home and abroad of rigging elections and turning the country into a preserve for members of his family and tribe, who hold many critical government positions and control several important private businesses.

Mr. Saleh dismissed the criticisms. American officials, he said, view Yemen’s negotiations with jihadists “as a kind of conspiracy, but this is a complete misunderstanding.” Yemen’s willingness to parole some convicted terrorists — including Jamal al-Badawi, who is wanted by the United States for his role in the 2000 bombing of the American destroyer Cole — is not just leniency, but a deliberate strategy aimed at pacifying and controlling Yemen’s many jihadists, Mr. Saleh said.

Mr. Saleh lashed out at what he called American interference in Yemen’s affairs, saying it had harmed his ability to deal with terrorism.

“We are wondering why they criticize us, while when we ask them to hand over our Yemeni detainees in Guantánamo they put a lot of conditions on us,” he said.

Mr. Saleh cast himself as a lonely defender of Yemen’s unity in a tumultuous landscape of feuding tribes and factions that will not submit to a sovereign state.

He said the northern Houthi rebels were racists who wanted to bring back the religious monarchy that reigned here until it was overthrown in 1962, an accusation the rebels deny; Al Qaeda wanted to create an Islamic emirate; and the riots in the south were led by Marxists who never accepted unity with the north.

He rattled off a list of development projects his government had sponsored in the south, adding bitterly that die-hard separatists had rewarded him with rebellion “because we created comprehensive development” there.

It is true that Yemen’s tribal regions have long resisted central rule, and that Mr. Saleh has brought a relative stability. When he first became North Yemen’s president in 1978, the country had suffered two decades of civil war and violence. The two presidents who preceded him had both been assassinated.

Mr. Saleh, a handsome young army officer from a peasant family, had come from a small tribe, and was seen as someone who could be easily manipulated. He won the job by promising he would keep it for only a few weeks, one of his peers later wrote.

Instead, he proved shrewder, and perhaps more ruthless, than his predecessors. He gradually allowed some democratic structures to grow, but used a system of patronage to keep a firm grip on power.

In 1990, he presided over the union of North Yemen and the Communist south, which had just lost its Soviet patron. He also welcomed tens of thousands of Arab fighters returning from the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, many of whom had been barred from returning to their home countries. Four years later, when a brief civil war broke out, Mr. Saleh sent those Islamist warriors to fight against the more secular south.

THAT was the start of a pragmatic relationship with the militants that would come to trouble Mr. Saleh’s alliance with the United States. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, fearing that Yemen could become the target of an American invasion, he flew to Washington and promised President Bush that he would cooperate in the fight against terrorism. He rounded up thousands of jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan, and since then Yemen’s new elite American-trained counterterrorism forces have captured and killed a number of militants.

He also angered American officials by freeing figures like Mr. Badawi and Jaber al-Baneh, another man wanted by American prosecutors on terrorism charges. He also maintained close ties with extremist figures like Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a popular cleric and political figure who supported Mr. Saleh in the latest presidential elections and who was listed as a “specially designated global terrorist” by both the United Nations and the United States in 2004.

Mr. Saleh defends Mr. Zindani, calling the American complaints unfair.

“Arrogant,” he says, referring to the Americans. He pauses, and then says in English: “Cowboys.”

But lately Mr. Saleh’s efforts to manage both the Americans and the jihadists have foundered. A series of bombings in the capital aimed at embassies and other targets have hurt tourism and pushed many foreigners to flee.

At the same time, the Houthi rebellion, which had been simmering out of sight in remote Sada Province since 2004, grew worse, and reached the margins of the capital. The rebellion’s aims are murky, but its origins lie partly with Mr. Saleh’s own policies. The rebels, who belong to the Zaydi branch of Shiism, grew out of a religious organization he financed in Sada in the 1990s to offset hard-line Sunni religious groups in the same area. When the Shiite group grew larger, he switched camps and began supporting its rival.

Now that policy of divide and rule appears to have run beyond his control. Some current and former government officials say the rebels have struck humiliating blows. They have gained support among Yemeni tribes, and have bought weapons from the Yemeni military, which is said to have suffered desertions.

The rebellion now threatens to snowball into a broader proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with troubling sectarian overtones.

Mr. Saleh said the rebellion was under control, at least in the suburbs outside Sana. But the stress of dealing with Yemen’s constant power struggles appears to be taking its toll on him. He said he had advised his eldest son, Ahmed, who many Yemenis believe is being groomed as a successor, not to run for the office when Mr. Saleh’s current term as president ends in 2013.

“Ruling Yemen is difficult,” he said wearily. “I always say, it is like dancing with snakes.”

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