SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A senior U.S. diplomat pushing for a peaceful transfer of power in Yemen said Thursday that whichever side emerges from the four-month political crisis to lead the nation will cooperate with Washington in battling Yemen's al-Qaida branch.
The Obama administration fears Yemen's turmoil will give al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula more room to operate freely and plot attacks on the West from the country's remote and mountainous reaches. The U.S. says the Yemen-based militants are now the terrorist network's No. 1 threat and has carried out expanded strikes against them with armed drones and warplanes.
In talks with government officials and opposition figures seeking the president's ouster, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffery Feltman said all expressed an understanding of Washington's concerns about Yemen's al-Qaida branch, which has an estimated 300 fighters and has carried out several nearly successful strikes on U.S. targets.
"Everyone gave us some assurances that they are concerned about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," Feltman said. "Any government is going to be a strong partner. They are committed to work with us in fighting terrorism."
The diplomat also delivered Washington's message that it wants to see a swift transfer of power as outlined in a proposal by Gulf mediators trying to end the political crisis.
Yemen's autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is clinging to power despite daily protests since February calling for his ouster and an attack on his palace this month that badly wounded him and forced him to fly to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.
He has refused three times to sign the Gulf proposal.
"We continue to believe that an immediate peaceful and orderly transition is in the best interest of the Yemeni people," Feltman said Thursday after his talks.
"We encourage all parties to move swiftly to implement the terms of the agreement so the Yemeni people can soon realize the security, unity and prosperity that they have so courageously sought," he added.
Feltman met with Saleh's powerful son Ahmed, who commands Yemen's Republican Guard force and is helping preserve his father's rule in his absence.
The deal by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council calls for Saleh to step down within 30 days and hand power to his vice president. It also calls for a national unity government to run the country until elections are held. In return, Saleh would get immunity from any prosecution.
There were signs Thursday that pressure was building on Saleh to accept the deal.
Saleh aide Abdul-Karim al-Iryani visited him in his hospital in Riyadh, and a Yemeni diplomat in Saudi Arabia said they discussed the opposition demand to transfer power to his vice president and implement of the Gulf initiative. The half-hour meeting was at Saleh's request, the diplomat said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the contacts.
The official Yemen news agency reported that al-Iryani said Saleh's condition was improving.
Washington considered Saleh an essential partner in battling al-Qaida and had given his government millions of dollars in military aid, but has been pressing for him to step down to spare the country further bloodshed.
Despite Feltman's assessment that all sides in Yemen's power struggle are committed to fighting al-Qaida, the U.S. is also preparing for a worst-case scenario.
The United States is building a secret CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target al-Qaida militants in Yemen in the event any future leadership would shut U.S. forces out.
There are several signs that the al-Qaida offshoot is already taking advantage of Yemen's turmoil to expand its reach. Hundreds of al-Qaida-linked militants have taken over two towns in southern Yemen.
And on Wednesday, nearly 60 suspected al-Qaida militants escaped from a Yemeni prison in the lawless south.
Yemen's unrest began in February with largely peaceful protests inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. A crackdown by government security forces has killed at least 167 people, according to Human Rights Watch.
The crisis descended into further violence when street battles broke out between forces loyal to President Saleh and fighters under the control of Yemen's most powerful tribal leader.