Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh gestures during a speech at Sanaa's… (Mohammad Huwais / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Sana, Yemen, and Cairo — Turning on a longtime ally, embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh delivered a fiery speech blaming the United States for destabilizing the Arab world, saying the anti-government protests in his capital were being run by the White House.
Saleh's accusations marked a departure for a president who has assisted the United States in the war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid in recent years.
"Every day we hear a statement from [President] Obama saying, 'Egypt you can't do this, Tunisia don't do that,'" Saleh told students and professors at Sana University on Tuesday. "What do you have to do with Egypt? Or with Oman? Are you president of the United States or president of the world?"
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney rebuked Saleh, saying he should focus on political reforms in his country.
"We don't think scapegoating will be the kind of response that the people of Yemen or the people in other countries will find adequate," Carney said.
Saleh's remarks, which included a condemnation of Israel, coincided with an anti-government protest that drew about 10,000 people to the streets of Sana, the capital, where an influential cleric, Sheik Abdul Majeed Zindani, called for the people of Yemen to replace the government with an Islamic state, an appeal met with both cheers and concerns from a crowd representing a cross section of the country.
Zindani, a cleric with a henna-dyed beard whom the U.S. government considers a terrorist, was a spiritual mentor to Osama bin Laden but has publicly rejected terrorism. He called on Saleh to grant the protesters' "legitimate demands and rights."
His appearance at the rally was important because he is a well-known head of Iman University, an ultraconservative Islamist institution in Sana. Although he has been a supporter of Saleh for many years, he is the latest of several leaders to defect from the embattled president. At one point, he joined with protesters chanting "Leave, leave, leave!"
Zindani's words to the crowd ignited shouts of "Amen!" from some men while others shifted uncomfortably, perhaps worried that he would cast Yemen's pro-democracy protesters in a radical light to the outside world.
"They're going to think we're all terrorists," said Yahya Ali Ali, a student. "Not all of us have this opinion."
"We want a democracy, not a caliphate," said Sadeq Fahd, 22, a graduate of Sana University. "We want to join the modern world as free people."
The events in the Yemen developed as unrest and political change continued to grip much of North Africa and the Middle East, from Libya to the Arabian Sea.
In Oman, Yemen's neighbor to the east, protests continued for a fourth day. The government deployed tanks to quash demonstrators seeking jobs and constitutional reform in the industrial city of Sohar, where the unrest began. Tanks were used on the road to the capital, Muscat, but the protests dispersed peacefully, residents said.
In Iran, clashes erupted between security forces and demonstrators in Tehran at a rally calling for the release of opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, witnesses and news reports said. Security forces used tear gas on the demonstrators, detained dozens and chased others, a witness said.
The witness, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, said dozens of protesters were seen chanting anti-government slogans, comparing some Iranian authority figures to deposed Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.
Political changes in Tunisia reportedly included the legalization of an Islamic party, the Ennahdha party, that had been banned for more than 20 years because the government considered it a terrorist group.
The protest in the Yemeni capital was among numerous marches across the country that were reported to have drawn hundreds of thousands of demonstrators.
In Sana, the so-called day of rage was transformed into a day of jubilation. Men, women and children gathered in the blocked-off intersection in the morning and spent the rest of the day munching on ears of corn, painting one another's faces with Yemen's tricolor flag and taking turns excoriating Saleh over a crackling loudspeaker.
The rally came a day after key opposition figures refused Saleh's offer to form a "unity government." The offer, which was widely considered the president's last-ditch effort at reconciliation, promised to include opposition leaders as well as members of the ruling party. Saleh also promised "intensifying anti-corruption investigations" and other political reforms.
Key members of the ruling party, as well as tribal leaders, have distanced themselves from Saleh, calling for an end to harsh government crackdowns on demonstrations. At least 27 people have died at protests in the last three weeks, according to Amnesty International.
Leaders of the separatist movement in Yemen's south, as well as Houthi rebels in northern provinces, reportedly joined protests Tuesday in cities and provinces across the country.
Special correspondent Edwards reported from Sana and Times staff writer Therolf from Cairo. Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo, Christi Parsons in Washington and special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.