Yemen's Saleh heads for US after giving 'Farewell' speech
File this one under "I'll belive when it happens."
Yemen's authoritarian President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is one his way to the United States for medical treatment after giving what was dubbed a "farewell speech" to television audience.
The fact that Saleh has reneged on promises to leave at least 4 times in the last year makes his promise to step down this time a leap of faith that most Yemenis refuse to make.
"I ask for pardon from all Yemeni men and women for any shortcoming that occurred during my 33-year rule and I ask forgiveness and offer my apologies to all Yemeni men and women," said Mr. Saleh in the televised speech. "Now we must concentrate on our martyrs and injured."
His departure appears to mark the end of his long presidency, fulfilling part of a Western-backed plan for transition in the Arab world's poorest country.
With many relatives and allies still remaining in high-ranking positions, some expect Saleh to wield significant influence from behind the scenes. But with an extremely volatile situation, where protesters have called for the ouster of Saleh's entire regime (not just the head of it), it's not certain the country will long be in their hands.
In that light, Washington's decision to allow him to receive medical care in the US could damage American relations with a future Yemeni government by creating the impression it is sympathetic to Saleh, who has many enemies from his long legacy of divide-and-conquer rule.
Such a decline in relations could jeopardize a key US security focus: combating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which many believe has grown stronger in the south of Yemen as a result of the country's instability. Even before the uprising, some US officials had identified the group - responsible for the foiled 2009 Christmas Day underwear bombing and the 2010 cargo plane bombing plot - as more dangerous than what's left of the original Al Qaeda based in Pakistan.
Just recently, AQAP took over a town in southern Yemen, expanding its hold on several provinces that have fallen into their hands as the civil war distracted the Yemeni army. The new/old government doesn't like AQAP anymore than Saleh's government did, which is good news for counter-terrorism efforts. But there is a lot of work to do in order to dislodge AQAP from the provinces it controls.
Once Saleh is hale and hearty after his medical treatment, he may decide to return to Yemen. Then what? While the situation is not that similar to 1979 when the American government allowed the Shah to enter the US for cancer treatments which precipitated the attack on our embassy, it certainly doesn't help our relations with the new government who views Saleh with suspicion. We were the dictator's biggest backers when he was in power. I wouldn't blame the Yemeni people for distrusting the US government for allowing Saleh into the country.