The forces, commanded by Gen. Faisal Ragab, a battalion commander who defected to the opposition last March, are battling Islamist militants in southern Yemen in an effort to demonstrate that they are as capable as Saleh loyalists of taking on militants associated with Al Qaeda. The militants have seized control of two towns in the central part of Yemen.
It also comes as the Obama administration has reportedly intensified its attacks on suspected Islamist militants in Yemen using armed drones and fighter jets. US jets killed on Friday Abu Ali al-Harithi, a mid-level Qaeda operative, and several other militant suspects in southern Yemen.
The US has also tried but failed to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni cleric associated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Al Qaeda affiliate, who was an outside contender to succeed killed AL Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Powerful military commander Brigadier-General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the head of the first armored brigade who defected in March, sought this weekend to stir the pot further by repeating allegations that AQAP was a creature of Mr. Saleh’s making to secure Western military and economic support.
Few doubt that Mr. Saleh has repeatedly manipulated the terrorist threat in Yemen and played both ends against the middle to curry US and European favor. But, by the same token, AQAP is viewed by Western counter-terrorism officials as real as well as the most active and dangerous of Al Qaeda’s affiliates alongside its North African counterpart, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In a bid to prevent rebel troops from undermining Mr. Saleh’s projection of himself as a bulwark of the struggle against the militants, the Yemeni Defense Ministry claimed that its forces had killed 21 Al Qaeda militants in Lawdar and Zinjibar. The ministry said further that 19 soldiers were also killed in the fighting in the two towns in Abyan province, a stronghold for various Islamist groups, including AQAP.
General Ahmar’s allegation was as much a shot across the bow in the infighting within Mr. Saleh’s tribe, family and ruling party over how to fill the power vacuum created by the president’s departure for medical treatment as it was an effort to bolster US and European confidence that a post-Saleh Yemen would continue the fight against Islamist militants.
The general is a member of the Ahmar clan, a sub-unity of Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, to which Mr. Saleh also belongs, as well as a cousin and brother-in-law of the president. The Ahmars fought fierce battles against Saleh loyalists in Sana’a but deny that they were responsible for the attack on the presidential compound.
Mr. Saleh “constantly tries to take advantage of manufactured crises at home to apply blackmail abroad. He claims to be a safety valve for Yemen and neighboring countries, but it is a lie,” General Ahmar, whose troops are protecting anti-government protesters in Sana’a, said in an interview with pan-Arab daily Al Hayat.
General Ahmar charged that Mr. Saleh’s nephews, Tarek Saleh, the commander of the presidential guard, and Amar Saleh, a senior national security official, were the president’s point men in manufacturing a fake terrorist threat in Yemen.
“Just after Saleh spoke of Al Qaeda seizing control of provinces, the regime handed over Abyan to terrorist gunmen. I fear that the regime might hand over control over other provinces to terrorist groups,” General Ahmar said.
The general’s remarks were echoed by another senior military officer, General Abdel Hakim al-Salahi, who is a military advisor of the Abyan governor and a member of Mr. Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress.
General Salahi accused Mr. Saleh of having “a very clear plot aimed at creating chaos in Yemen’’ that would have allowed Islamist militants to take control of at least five southern provinces “in order to spark the fears of the West and terrorize the people of Yemen.’’ He said the Islamists included militants who had sided with the president during Yemen’s 1994 war with southern separatists as well as Islamists associated with Al Qaeda.
Mr. Saleh’s military opponents hope that by demonstrating their determination and ability to fight the Islamists, they will not only reassure Western nations but increase pressure on Saudi Arabia not to allow Mr. Saleh to return to Yemen. Despite persistent reports that Mr. Saleh was more seriously wounded than officially acknowledged, doctors at the hospital where he is being treated, the Riyadh Armed Forces Hospital, say that he is recovering rapidly and will soon be able to travel.
Saudi and Yemeni officials insist Mr. Saleh has every intention of returning to power and that his stay in the kingdom is purely humanitarian.
Mr. Saleh’s return rather than restoring stability is likely to fuel the three-month old anti-government protests and could rekindle fighting with his tribal opponents.
By fighting the Islamists, dissident military units are positioning themselves to be part of a deal between segments of Mr. Saleh’s erstwhile power structure, including the Ahmars, who want to see the president deposed but are seeking to maintain as much of the old system at possible.
It’s a deal that would effectively cut out the anti-government, pro-democracy protesters camped out in Sana’s Change Square and serve Saudi Arabia’s purpose of preserving the status quo to the degree possible, but challenge US President Barack Obama’s call for real political and economic change.