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The president has used the AQAP threat in the past to crackdown on dissidents and maintain his dictatorship. For the Yemeni opposition, it has become a question of credibility. Saleh has “cried wolf” so often that even a genuine threat from extremists on one of the nation’s largest cities is met with skepticism and continued demands that he relinquish control of the country immediately. Saleh has already promised three times that he would resign, agreeing to terms negotiated by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Three times, he has reneged on the agreement, citing the chaos that would descend on Yemen if he were to depart.
Saleh has been withdrawing army units from the south for several months trying to bolster security in the capital and other northern cities. This has given AQAP an advantage that it may be a long time relinquishing. The terrorists have allied themselves with more secular-oriented separatists in the south who have been carrying on a low-level insurrection ever since North and South Yemen were united in 1990. With separatist activity increasing, the government — whoever leads it in the near future — will have its hands full trying to extinguish wildfires set by both al-Qaeda and newly empowered insurgents in Ayban province. It may take many months – perhaps years – for the government build up the strength necessary to confront its security problems.
But while the terrorists are making gains, President Saleh has apparently decided to increase the pressure on the opposition. On Sunday, at least 20 protestors were killed in a brutal attack by government forces on a tent city in the main square in Taiz where thousands were camped out calling for President Saleh’s ouster. Tanks moved in along with riot police and set fire to tents trapping some protestors inside while snipers gunned down civilians from a hotel rooftop across the street from the square. The death toll may rise significantly due to many wounded civilians who are still lying in the street and are unable to receive medical assistance. Government forces looted a nearby hospital, smashing computers and arresting injured protestors.
There are also indications that a truce with the powerful Hashid Federation may be falling apart. Following a week of fierce clashes between the Hashids and the government, a cease fire was arranged on Friday. The Hashid Federation is led by Saleh’s most powerful rival, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, who owns the country’s largest cell phone network. Reports that filtered out of Sanaa on Sunday evening suggested that the government had interrupted that phone service following reports of mortar rounds and machine gun fire in the Hashid stronghold of Hasaba.
There are now three of the largest tribes in Yemen fighting the government. It is, for all practical purposes, a civil war. As the Wall Street Journal points out, “When tribal blood is spilled, the tribal code of honor prioritizes revenge.” How can Saleh, or any possible successor, put this patchwork quilt of clashing tribal and clan interests back together in the near future?
No doubt AQAP is wondering the same thing.
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