By LAURA KASINOF,23/06/2011
SANA, Yemen — As the Arab Spring has turned to summer, this impoverished nation has fallen into chaos, raising fears in Washington that it will become the next headquarters of Al Qaeda — particularly with the declining influence of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, one of America’s staunchest allies in the fight against terrorism.
But Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, long one of Yemen’s most powerful military commanders and now a prominent opposition figure, says that familiar scenario has it just about backward.
Once it comes to power, he says, the opposition will become a far more dependable counterterrorism ally for the United States than President Saleh ever was. Mr. Saleh, now laid up in a Saudi hospital, is the problem, the general says, not the answer.
“As long as this regime is in power, Al Qaeda will continue to exist in Yemen,” said General Ahmar, sitting in his office at the headquarters of the army’s First Armored Division, which he leads. “Now, counterterrorism cooperation is based on material cooperation only. It is for the exchange of funds. How much will you give me if I can kill a person for you?”
As soon as political power is no longer consolidated in the Saleh family, General Ahmar vowed: “We will deal with terrorism as a critical issue. It will fight the terrorists as a matter of life or death. Not for material gain.”
Commonly regarded as the second most powerful man in Yemen, General Ahmar announced his support for what he called Yemen’s “peaceful youth revolution” a few days after the massacre on March 18, when government-linked snipers killed 52 protesters.
It was a watershed moment for the uprising. Immediately after General Ahmar’s announcement, soldiers from the First Armored Division were deployed around the perimeter of Sana’s large antigovernment protest to protect the demonstrators. Protesters would kiss the soldiers’ foreheads as they entered the area, and many protesters suddenly got the feeling that the movement to oust the Saleh government could actually succeed.
Numerous other military commanders, ambassadors, ministers and other officials followed in General Ahmar’s wake the same week, declaring their support for the protesters and saying that the days of the Saleh government were nearing an end. It was also the starting point for negotiations among the opposition, the ruling party and Western governments, notably the United States, for Mr. Saleh’s exit.
His refrain that Mr. Saleh and his family have not been serious partners in Washington’s counterterrorism campaign is frequently heard these days from leaders in Yemen’s opposition movement. Though not a member, General Ahmar is very close to Al Islah, Yemen’s Islamist party and the most powerful force in the country’s official opposition.
There are those in the opposition and ruling party who are skeptical of General Ahmar’s intentions. Though an affable man, he was an integral part of the Saleh government and was responsible for some of its corrosive policies. He played a central role in commanding the mujahedeen who returned from war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to fight in the Yemeni military, especially in Yemen’s civil war in 1994.
For the past six years, he commanded Yemen’s war against Houthi rebels in the country’s north, during which human rights organizations have said his army committed a number of war crimes against civilians. Coupled with major corruption allegations, his critics say, he is far from the ideal national hero.
Radhia al-Mutawakil, a prominent Yemeni human rights activist, said she decided to take a lesser role in the protest movement because of him.
“We can’t prevent anyone from joining the revolution,” Ms. Mutawakil said. “The revolution is for anyone. But to accept him and to deal with him as a hero, that was a very big problem. He is a very important part of the regime. Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar are the same thing.”
But General Ahmar has been trying hard to put a gloss on his dubious past.
“He was weakened by the Saada war and realized that by joining the protesters he can cleanse some of the bad image,” said a high-ranking government official, an independent, who knows the general personally.
General Ahmar now says he believes in political change through peaceful means, and that his goal is to build a civil state, free of corruption. A division of the army under his command is currently engaged in the battle against militants in the provincial capital, Zinjibar, “to show America that we are serious in the fight against Al Qaeda,” said his spokesman, Abdulghani al-Shumeeri.
Even when the home base of the First Armored Division, sitting high on a hill in northwestern Sana, was attacked by government forces, killing 35 soldiers, General Ahmar did not retaliate.
“We acted patiently this way in order to maintain the peaceful path of the revolution,” he said. “God willing, the revolution will achieve victory, peacefully.”
Fighting broke out in late May in Sana between Mr. Saleh and his rival tribal leaders, the Ahmar family, who are not related to General Ahmar. The general’s First Armored Division mostly stayed out of that conflict. Now, large groups of ragged-looking men stand outside his army base every morning, waiting to enlist.
General Ahmar, who is from the same village as Mr. Saleh, started to distance himself from the president in 2001, when he believed that Mr. Saleh was positioning his son Ahmed Ali to take over after him, analysts say. On at least one occasion, spelled out in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Mr. Saleh tried to assassinate General Ahmar by giving the Saudi Air Force the coordinates of a base where the general was staying during the last round of fighting in the Saada war in 2010.
General Ahmar says he is now dedicated to completing Yemen’s revolution and has no designs on power for himself. At one point in negotiations with Mr. Saleh, both men apparently agreed to resign and leave the country. The deal fell through, with each side blaming the other. But General Ahmar says he is still prepared to go ahead.
“If they ask me to leave my place for the interest of Yemen, I am ready to do it at any moment,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to keep my position in power or no aspirations for power either. Our genuine aspiration is to lead the revolution into a safe harbor and to ensure its success.”
However, when asked whether Mr. Saleh would return from Saudi Arabia after his wounds had healed, the general would say only “we have no information on this.”
Source: The New York Times