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Latest Yemen violence stems from three-way power struggle

Street battles continue in Yemen, eclipsing a peaceful protest movement and reflecting a strategic struggle among a renegade general, a billionaire tribal leader and the family of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

September 20, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Zaid al-Aalayaa, Los Angeles Times
  • An injured anti-government protester is carried away during clashes between dissident military troops and those loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana.
An injured anti-government protester is carried away during clashes between…

Reporting from Cairo and Sana, Yemen — The deadly artillery barrages and sprawling street battles that have engulfed Yemen in recent days are rooted in a strategic power struggle among a renegade general, a billionaire tribal leader and the family of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The animosities among these three factions are eclipsing a largely peaceful protest movement that for the last eight months has been unable to force Saleh from office. The intense fighting in the capital, Sana, is rumbling closer to civil war as the president's main rivals attempt to exploit the chaos and maneuver for control of the nation.

Gunfire and explosions in a battle between soldiers for and against Saleh battered Sana for a third day Tuesday. At least 12 people were killed, including two demonstrators who died in a dawn rocket attack on a protester camp. Since Sunday, nearly 60 people have been killed in the capital, many of the unarmed protesters targeted by artillery and government-backed snipers.

The violence has grown more ferocious as Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh Ahmar, commander of the 1st Armored Division who defected with his troops in March to join protesters, has skirmished with forces backing the president's son, Ahmed Saleh, who heads the Republican Guard. The volatility has further increased as billionaire Hamid Ahmar, no relation to the general, has mobilized his followers against Saleh's family.

Fighting spread early Tuesday from the protesters' tents around Change Square to the affluent neighborhood of Hadda, where unconfirmed reports say Hamid Ahmar's compound came under fire.

"They all have their agendas," Mohammed Mutwakel, an opposition leader, said of the factions vying for control. "They want to take cover in the protests or use the protests to advance their goals."

Gen. Ahmar, who runs corrupt businesses and was long considered the second-most powerful man in Yemen, is sympathetic to radical political Islam and could embolden the country's extremist clerics. A 2005 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks said the general's questionable "dealings with terrorists and extremists … would make his accession unwelcome to the U.S. and others in the international community."

Hamid Ahmar, a scion of the powerful Hashid tribe, made his fortune after Saleh, a master at manipulating clans, allowed him to control a bank, oil businesses and the country's mobile phone network. But over the last year the billionaire distanced himself from the president and, like the renegade general, opposed the prospect that Saleh's son would become Yemen's next leader.

Ahmed Saleh moved into the presidential palace after his father was wounded in a rocket attack in June. The elder Saleh is recuperating in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has been pressuring him not to return to Yemen. The son is protecting his father's ruling General's People's Congress (GPC) through the family's control of military and intelligence services.

The interests of these men – and Saleh himself – could be jeopardized by a plan from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations for a transfer of power that would lead to reforms and new elections. Such a scenario would likely spoil Ahmed Saleh's political ambitions and raise questions about the futures of Gen. Ahmar and Hamid Ahmar, a leader in Islah, the country's main Islamist party.

"All factions must sit down for a dialogue," said Tariq Shami, the government spokesman. "But the GPC won't respond to demands by extremists in the Islah party or from the general. They want to draw the nation into civil war. They don't want to see a political solution."

Washington, which had backed Saleh for years, worries the instability will allow Yemen's Al Qaeda affiliate to become more entrenched in the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. is providing the army with logistical and intelligence support to rout Islamic militants, but a change in Yemen's leadership could alter that relationship.

The palace intrigue and street fighting also endanger the activists and students who last winter sought to end Saleh's 33-year rule by emulating the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aims, now shared by millions of Yemenis, are for better jobs and democracy in the Arab world's poorest nation.

"Hamid Ahmar and the president's son know nothing about the reality and suffering of Yemen," said Ahmed Zurqah, a protester. "They were born with silver spoons in their mouths and this fighting between them is only for more power."

Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent al-Aalayaa from Sana.

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