Antigovernment protesters in Sana celebrate news that Yemeni President… (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters )
Reporting from Cairo and Sana, Yemen — After months of unrest that have brought his country to the edge of civil war, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to hand power to his vice president in a deal that leaves him immune from prosecution in the deaths of scores of protesters.
The agreement reached with the opposition and backed by the U.S. and Persian Gulf nations allows Saleh to retain the title of president for three months while early elections are scheduled. A clever politician who has ruled for 33 years, Saleh has broken similar promises before and it remains to be seen whether he will finesse a loophole to stay in charge.
The president, a former tank officer, is the epitome of the Arab strongman, playing his enemies off against one another and using force when necessary. His departure would leave his poor and battered nation facing an uncertain fate as tribes jockey for power, a secessionist movement rumbles in the south and a resurgent Al Qaeda branch battles security forces in towns and villages.
Saudi television showed Saleh signing the agreement, which was negotiated by United Nations envoy Jamal Benomar, in the presence of Saudi King Abdullah.
Saleh pledged that his ruling party would cooperate with the opposition in a new unity government, adding, "This disagreement for the last 10 months has had a big impact on Yemen in the realms of culture, development, politics, which led to a threat to national unity and destroyed what has been built in past years."
Saleh has been an ally of Washington in battling the Al Qaeda terrorist network, allowing an expanded role by U.S. military and intelligence inside the country, including airstrikes by drones. In September, one of those strikes killed Anwar Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who was a top recruiter for Yemen's Al Qaeda wing.
It is unclear whether his successor will be as compliant in regard to U.S. interests. Yemen is run by tribes, heavily influenced by conservative Islam and largely anti-American. U.S. and Saudi officials worry that Yemen's continued chaos will allow Al Qaeda a greater foothold at the crossroads of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
The Obama administration welcomed the deal, while cautioning that much more needed to be done before a new government is installed and the crisis ended.
"We're under no illusions," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "Yemen still faces significant challenges."
Toner said it was unclear why Saleh, after months of feints, had agreed to sign the document. U.S. officials also said they were unable to comment on reports that Saleh is seeking to come to the United States for medical treatment, adding they had received no formal request for such a visit.
Even as the deal was finalized, Saleh's army battled fighters from a rival tribe in Sana, the Yemeni capital. The city has become a war zone of barricades, tanks and competing factions juxtaposed with a peaceful antigovernment protest movement that includes human rights leader Tawakul Karman, co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
"We have seen in the past how this regime manipulates and maneuvers," said Adel Sharjabi, a political analyst. "The most important thing now is that international monitoring take place to make sure the conditions of the deal are met so the blood of the martyrs was not spilled in vain."
Saleh faced increasing international pressure to step down. Yemen's economy is imploding and the president, who was badly wounded in an assassination attempt in June, appeared to have lost his knack for manipulating a growing list of enemies, including a mutinous general and Hamid Ahmar, a telecommunications billionaire with a small army.
"But what comes next?" said Faisal Hashidi, a teacher, when news of the deal spread across Yemen. "I'm optimistic but also concerned that the violence will take a while to settle down."
Many questions remain about Saleh's presence in Yemen. His family controls the military and intelligence agencies. The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen suffers from drought and malnutrition. Its problems are easy to exploit by clan leaders, especially if the president can't provide the largesse and favors to tribes that kept Saleh in power for decades.
Saleh has been brutal against his enemies. His security forces, thugs and snipers have killed scores of antigovernment protesters, who have been among the most defiant in the uprising sweeping the Arab world. But his forces often appear to be losing ground against Al Qaeda militants and secessionist fighters in the south. Clashes between northern and southern forces sparked a civil war in 1994.
Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Al-Alayaa from Sana. Staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.