Yemen Leader's Exit Leaves Shaky Political Ground Ali Abdullah Saleh is in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after he was wounded in a rocket attack. His departure set off celebrations in Yemen, but there are concerns his absence could create a power vacuum in a country where al-Qaida has a strong base.
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Yemen Leader's Exit Leaves Shaky Political Ground

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Yemen Leader's Exit Leaves Shaky Political Ground

Yemen Leader's Exit Leaves Shaky Political Ground

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RACHEL MARTIN, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The Arab Spring that brought the promise of peaceful transitions in Tunisia and Egypt has turned into a bloody, intractable summer for other countries caught in the chaos of revolution. U.S. officials are trying to hold up Iraq as a model of democracy and economic stability in the region.

In a few minutes, we'll hear from the man who was charged with turning Iraq's economy around. Now he's in Afghanistan trying to help that country cash in on the huge reserves of iron, copper and gold under its soil.

PAUL BRINKLEY: This is a resources that the Afghans are starting to understand, offers them a future.

MARTIN: But first, we turn to the latest turmoil in the Middle East. Syrian forces have killed dozens of civilians during demonstrations this weekend as protesters demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. In Libya, NATO forces have intensified their attacks on Gadhafi's military. And then there's Yemen. U.S. officials are keeping a close eye on the small Gulf state after the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after being wounded in an attack on the presidential compound. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, Saleh's departure has been met with celebrations but also concern about a potential power vacuum.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Just a few days ago, there were genuine fears that Yemen was spiraling into civil war, edging closer to becoming a failed state. Peaceful protests that began earlier this year, calling for President Saleh's ouster, evolved over the past few weeks into armed conflict between tribal groups and government supporters. Throughout it all, Saleh refused to step down. But Friday's deadly attack on his presidential compound changed the dynamic, says Christopher Boucek, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: President Saleh's departure is really the opening that needed to happen in order to move past this current political crisis, right? Nothing could really change until he left.

NORTHAM: Officially, Saleh only transferred power temporarily to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Hadi, and members of his party said he would return to Yemen. Boucek says that's unlikely. He says Saudi Arabia's agreement to offer Saleh medical treatment was conditional.

BOUCEK: I think all of this must be with the understanding that he's not going to go back to Yemen to assume the presidency. I don't see how he can go back and still be president.

NORTHAM: While Saleh's departure was met with celebrations, there were also clashes in some areas of Yemen. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert with Princeton University, says the next few days are critical.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: It's unclear how this is going to go, because while President Saleh has left, his sons and his nephews, who control the Republican Guard, the special forces and the central security forces, are still in Yemen. And so while the U.S. and Saudi Arabia would like to see this be the final exit for Saleh, I think President Saleh and his immediate family probably have a different road in mind.

NORTHAM: Johnsen says there are concerns Saleh's departure could create a power vacuum, one that could be exploited by al-Qaida. U.S. intelligence officials say Yemen is a prime breeding ground for al-Qaida, and that the tentacles of the Islamist terror group have taken hold in some areas of the country. The U.S. long considered Saleh's government an ally in fighting the local chapter, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Carnegie's Boucek says that changed earlier this year.

BOUCEK: Since this protest started in Yemen, we've seen the regime reposition its counterterrorism assets away from going after al-Qaida towards protecting the regime. So for the past four months, the regime has not been going after al-Qaida the way the United States or the European allies or Saudi Arabia would have wanted.

NORTHAM: The challenge for the U.S. and the international community is to convince whatever government comes next that security and fighting terrorism need to be the priority, says Princeton University's Johnsen.

JOHNSEN: A stable, a viable Yemen is really in everybody's best interests because we've seen what comes from having a chaotic Yemen, one that's in danger of falling apart.

NORTHAM: Les Campbell, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at the National Democratic Institute, says there are many potential leaders and a vibrant and cohesive opposition that could take over from Saleh if given the chance. Campbell says the U.S. has been involved throughout the crisis, shuttling amongst the players, President Saleh and the opposition, and encouraging a negotiated political settlement.

LES CAMPBELL: The interest of the U.S. is to clear this up as quickly as possible to avoid further uncertainty, and to encourage all the political forces to come together and discuss.

NORTHAM: Campbell says he's sure that's what Gerald Michael Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, is working on right now. Jackie Northam, NPR News Washington.

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