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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to spend the next few minutes exploring the implications of two of the uprisings in the Middle East. Yemen is increasingly unstable. Its president, Ali Abdullah Selah, has left the country, though he hasn't resigned. The big concern for the U.S. is that Yemen has a very active branch of al-Qaida. Yet some Yemen watchers say the U.S. is missing an opportunity to help usher in a new government.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has more.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The ongoing turmoil and uncertainty over Yemen's political future has the U.S. worried Islamist militants will expand the areas where they can train, plot and grow. Jihadists with apparent links to al-Qaida have already overrun parts of several towns in the south, including parts of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Province.

Here's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking recently on PBS's "The Charlie Rose Show."

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): They have a very clever, difficult al-Qaida cell there. It's well led. They seek international terror; seek and support executing the kind of operations that have been stopped. So Yemen is a great worry and...

WESTERVELT: The Yemen crisis has prompted the CIA and U.S. Special Forces to accelerate plans to build a secret, remote base in the Persian Gulf region to strike at terror cells in Yemen with unmanned Predator drones. But some wonder whether the U.S. is too focused on security alone in Yemen.

Professor SHEILA CARAPICO (Political Science, American University, Cairo): We have a Saudi policy and we have an al-Qaida policy. We don't really have a Yemen policy. I would like to see us working the civilian side, as well as the military and the CIA side.

WESTERVELT: That's Yemen expert Sheila Carapico, who currently teaches at American University in Cairo. She worries the U.S.'s focus on terror threats plays into the hands of the discredited President Saleh, and may undermine long-term U.S. interests in the country.

Prof. CARAPICO: Most Yemenis have no patience with al-Qaida or with the jihadist fringe. But there is a way of wielding too much American force, which can create a sympathy where none existed before. And we certainly haven't lifted a finger to kind of further a diplomatic negotiated outcome.

WESTERVELT: Carapico says the irony is that Yemen's grassroots uprising risks being undermined by U.S. diplomatic deference to the oil-rich Saudi monarchy and the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. Neither body has a track record of supporting genuine political reform, let alone democratic change. The council recently backed the use of Saudi troops to help Bahrain's Sunni monarchy crush an uprising of Shiia citizens calling for greater political freedoms.

The U.S. has supported the GCC's proposed transition for Yemen, which calls for Saleh to resign in exchange for protection from prosecution for alleged rights abuses and corruption. So far, the GCC's diplomatic efforts have failed. So some now see an opening for a more muscular U.S. diplomacy that, so far, has not appeared.

Professor Mark Katz, at George Mason University, says a good start would be a forceful U.S. call for new free and fair elections in Yemen.

Professor MARK KATZ (Public and International Affairs, George Mason University): We're not doing anything like this. They don't seem to have any, you know, any contact or any plan as to who to work with, or even suggesting a plan for a transition.

WESTERVELT: While he recovers in a Saudi hospital from burns from a recent attack on his palace, President Saleh has tried to install his sons, Ahmed and Khaled, in the seats of power. On Monday, tens of thousands of protesters again took to the streets of the capital, San'a, demanding the sons - both military commanders - step aside and leave the country.

Mark Katz argues the U.S. has to do more to help solve Yemen's larger political problems, or risk continuing to play into the Saleh family's tired argument about security.

Prof. KATZ: You need me or else al-Qaida will be powerful. Whereas the truth is, in order to weaken al-Qaida we need to move on from Saleh to someone who'd be more acceptable to the Yemeni population.

WESTERVELT: President Saleh's return from Saudi Arabia - if it ever happens -would likely spark more violent clashes between his loyalists and members of powerful al-Ahmar family. Caught in the middle are Yemen's pro-democracy demonstrators, some of whom say neither faction represents their aspirations. And those demonstrators have heard little of substance from the West to bolster their risky push for change.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Cairo.

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