By HAKIM ALMASMARI And MARGARET COKER
SANA'A, Mar 28, 2011- President Ali Abdullah Saleh has backed away from a deal struck over the weekend that would have him step down from power immediately but keep his relatives in charge of the country's elite counter-terrorism forces, according to Yemeni negotiators and people familiar with the situation.
The change in Mr. Saleh's position threatens a key demand by American and Saudi officials meant to curb the influence of al Qaeda in the country.
The president and his opponents, who include the nation's top military commander and an array of political parties and tribes, have been trying to forge a peaceful handover of power, amid burgeoning street protests against Mr. Saleh's rule. Mediated by the U.S. and British ambassadors, discussions were in the final stages Saturday when talks broke down amid personal insults and threats, people familiar with the situation said.
Increasing rancor between the president and Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, his former ally who is considered the nation's second most powerful political figure, threatens a quick solution to the crisis.
It also raises fresh concerns about al Qaeda cells active in Yemen taking advantage of the growing chaos to expand their reach and base in the impoverished and fractious nation.
Suspected al Qaeda gunmen killed seven government soldiers in a skirmish over the weekend in the southern Mareb province, according to government officials. On Friday, tribesmen from the southern province of Shebwa said they had taken control of 17 military bases abandoned by counterterrorism units belonging to the Central Security forces, which are commanded by President Saleh's nephew.
News of the attacks came amid what appears to be a serious breakdown in trust between Mr. Saleh and Gen. Ahmar, whom opposition forces have appointed their lead negotiator. The two men, who hail from the same tribe and village, together have run Yemen since the late 1970s.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Gen. Ahmar said the opposition had worked out a five-point plan early Saturday with the president that would have both him and Mr. Saleh resign from their posts, put a caretaker government led by the current prime minister in charge, but keep Mr. Saleh's son and nephews in their roles leading U.S.-trained and -financed counterterrorism units.
Eldest son Ahmed and nephew Yahya are among a handful of Saleh family members who are key liaisons with U.S. military and intelligence officials in the hunt for al Qaeda members in Yemen, including radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaqi.
The deal stalled, however, when Gen. Ahmar on Saturday delivered a fresh demand from the opposition—that Mr. Saleh go into exile after he resigns—sparking a backlash from the president, according to people familiar with the situation.
Gen. Ahmar said the president responded by calling him and threatening him with reprisals if he didn't surrender himself to forces still loyal to the president.
"We agreed yesterday with Saleh that he would step down and [his ally] Prime Minister Ali Mujawar would become president during a transition period. We agreed that the president's relatives would command [their units] for five months after he steps down for the sake of security in the country. But Saleh violated our agreement...by threatening me and my men with attacks," Gen. Ahmar said in a telephone interview with The Journal.
A government official confirmed the details of the negotiations as well as the call between the president and Gen. Ahmar. The official said the president's reaction to fresh demands on him was "understandable" given the sensitivity of the talks.
"All negotiations are difficult, and this is negotiating Yemeni style," said the official. "The opposition has threatened the president's honor and the president needed to respond. He feels that his partners have gone back on their word and in a tribal society like Yemen's that is a serious insult."
In an interview with Arabic news channel Al Arabiya that aired on Sunday, Mr. Saleh lashed out at his opponents, saying that their demands on him were illegitimate and irrational.
He said the majority of the country still supported him, and that large crowds that gathered to hear him speak on Friday rivalled the numbers of the anti-government protesters who have camped out in the capital for more than six weeks.
"They are a minority," Mr. Saleh told Al Arabiya, referring to his political opponents. "They can organize a march of 20,000 people? I can get two or three million. How can a minority twist the arm of the majority?"
Two people familiar with the negotiations say that the breakdown of trust between Pres. Saleh and Gen. Ahmar is severe, and more robust international mediation would be necessary to save the talks. "It's unclear where the talks are going, if anywhere. The two men are in an unhealthy psychological state," said one person.
The streets of the capital San'a still bristled with tanks and armed soldiers on almost every major intersection, but bloodshed has remained largely at bay since a bloody crackdown on March 18 in which plainclothes security officers opened fire against unarmed demonstrators who have erected protest tents in a downtown square.
The U.S. and regional governments, especially Yemen's neighbor Saudi Arabia, have worried that the ongoing political crisis would disrupt counterterrorism operations and allow Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand. The more time without a political solution to the crisis also increases the probability of violence, or even civil war, Yemeni analysts say.
Source: The Wall Street Journal