ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that the U.S. is worried about what that means for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen.
MICHELE KELEMEN: As gunfights raged in the Yemeni capital, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered out nonessential U.S. Embassy staffers. She had called on the various factions struggling for control to cease the violence, and she also made clear to reporters traveling with her in Paris today that time is up for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
SIEGEL: We continue to support a unified and stable Yemen, and we continue to support the departure of President Saleh, who has consistently agreed that he would be stepping down from power and then consistently reneged on those agreements.
KELEMEN: Three times now, President Saleh has scuttled a transition plan offered by the Gulf Cooperation Council. One Yemen watcher, Bernard Haykel, who teaches at Princeton University, says Saleh may simply be holding out for a sweeter deal.
P: I mean, that's one possibility of why he's not signing. Another is that, you know, the GCC has to become much more active in Yemen by supporting opponents to Saleh, by showing Saleh that he, you know, his chips are up, and he has to leave.
KELEMEN: Saudi Arabia, Haykel says, will play the key role, and the U.S. should be closely coordinating with Riyadh in sending strong messages. Still, the Princeton professor says convincing Saleh to quit will be a big challenge. He says the Yemeni leader likes to keep people guessing.
P: President Saleh is someone who is very famous for juggling different constituencies, never agreeing to being pinned down to anything. I mean, he does run the country, Yemen - and has for 33 years now - in this very ad hoc-ish, always keeping everyone off balance, and that's just his style.
KELEMEN: Christopher Boucek, who's with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Yemen and the region can't afford a lengthy civil conflict.
KELEMEN: Yemen is already the poorest country in the Arab world, and the average Yemeni is getting squeezed. And we used to talk about Yemen's looming economic collapse. It's now economic meltdown, I would say.
KELEMEN: And it's not just the economic meltdown that worries U.S. officials. Many here fear that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula stands to gain from the political vacuum. Boucek says U.S. officials may not have always been pleased with President Saleh, but he has been a partner on counterterrorism, and the U.S. is worried about who might come next.
KELEMEN: So there's been some understandable reluctance to want to separate, but, you know, very clearly, the Yemeni government is not focused on terrorism right now. They're focused on regime protection.
KELEMEN: And Princeton University's Bernard Haykel thinks President Saleh has overstated the al-Qaida threat anyway.
P: I think that they should call his bluff, as far as the threat of al-Qaida. I think that the threat of al-Qaida in Yemen has been overblown by Saleh and to great effect in the United States.
KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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