Militants and Politics Bedevil Yemen’s New Leaders

By KAREEM FAHIM

Shuaib M. al-Mosawa contributed reporting from Sana, Yemen.

A Yemeni soldier passing a wall painted with graffiti in Sana, the nation’s capital. Resurgent militants in the south have recently staged bold attacks.

April 23, 2012

CAIRO — Two months after a new president took office, Yemen’s fledgling interim government has found itself overwhelmed by a set of dangerous new challenges to the country’s stability, including a series of a bold attacks by a resurgent militant movement in the south and a festering political standoff in the capital.

In the last few weeks, the new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has faced open defiance after he tried to dismiss or reassign officials loyal to his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years. In the south, hundreds of people have been killed in clashes that intensified after insurgents attacked an army base and seized heavy weapons, including tanks.

A military officer in Lawdar, one of the centers of the fighting, said that soldiers had not been able to recapture an army base that they were forced to abandon after an attack by the militants in early April. “The situation is now out of control,” said the officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Yemen has staggered from crisis to crisis since early last year, when a popular uprising against Mr. Saleh spread to cities across the country. Many Yemenis hoped that Mr. Saleh’s resignation in February as part of a foreign-brokered power-transfer deal might open a path out of a crippling impasse. But Mr. Hadi’s first weeks in office have served as a reminder of Yemen’s persistent divisions and vulnerabilities, complicated by a year of political revolt against a generation of Mr. Saleh’s autocratic rule.

Jamal Benomar, a United Nations envoy responsible for shepherding the political transition, flew back to Yemen’s capital, Sana, last week to help start a national dialogue conference that is supposed to address some of Yemen’s most intractable problems, and the protesters’ still unresolved complaints.  Instead, he found himself trying reconcile feuding leaders. “If this conflict is not resolved, it can get out of hand,” he said. “There is a lot that has to be done. We’re trying to get everyone to stay focused, and cooperate.”

The latest troubles started after Mr. Hadi’s most far-reaching confrontation with the old guard. In a decision announced on a weekend, Mr. Hadi said he was replacing or reassigning about 20 top military commanders and the governors of four provinces, a purge that included several of Mr. Saleh’s loyalists. The former president’s half-brother, Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, who commanded the air force and has refused to leave, was accused of shutting down the airport in protest. He and other officials denied he was responsible.

“Hadi is playing a balancing game,” said April Longley Alley, a Yemen-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. “He went after the Saleh side, because militarily, they were more powerful.”

The protests by Mr. Saleh’s supporters — and by Mr. Saleh himself — notwithstanding, Mr. Hadi has been wary of upsetting the power balance too much. While he reassigned Mr. Saleh’s nephew, he left the former president’s son in place as the head of the country’s powerful Republican Guard. At the same time, officials and analysts said Mr. Hadi appeared to have taken a page from Mr. Saleh’s playbook in trying to build his own power base by appointing allies from his home province of Abyan to key posts.

Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst and the head of a group that campaigns for democracy, said the latest crises — which included power blackouts in Sana — were most likely related. “Whenever there is a bottleneck in national politics, there has been a pattern,” he said. “There are links between the biggest political groupings in Sana and violent extremist militias in other parts of the country.”

Whether related or not, the latest explosion of violence in the south occurred days after Mr. Hadi announced the shakeup. Over the last year, the government’s security services pulled out of many areas of the south, and an affiliate of Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sharia, moved into the vacuum. Its militants have staged a number of brazen attacks on military posts, sometimes capturing government soldiers. The group is also serving as a kind of de facto administration in some towns, providing services the government ceded, in a region that has long complained of official neglect and discrimination.

In early April, Ansar al-Sharia raided an army barracks in the city of Lawdar, a few miles from Mr. Hadi’s hometown, in what many Yemeni analysts perceived as a warning to the new president. The militants — including foreign fighters, local officials said — captured several tanks, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and light arms.

Hundreds of militants and dozens of soldiers have been killed since the first attack. “They stage raids, exploiting the vacuum,” said the military official in Lawdar. “There are no reinforcements,” he said, adding that soldiers had recaptured some of the weapons that were seized.

Adding to an already combustible mix, the fighting has been joined by so-called Popular Committees, citizen’s groups that started forming last year to fill the void left by the government. Ali Ahmed Abdu, a member of the Popular Committee in Lawdar, suggested that the thousands of men who joined the group were civilians’ only defense against the militants. “The government sent reinforcements,” he said. “Five days ago, they sent us kids from central security who don’t have any training or fighting skills.”

The United States, which recently announced it was increasing its antiterrorism cooperation with Yemen, also appears to be stepping up its use of drone attacks in the country, according to reports collected by The Long War Journal.

On Sunday, the American ambassador to Yemen, Gerald M. Feierstein, urged Yemeni officials to support Mr. Hadi’s reforms and praised the new leadership for “a strategy to challenge Al Qaeda in ways they have not done in the past months.” The government has claimed successes in the last few days, saying it had killed dozens of militants near Lawdar and the city of Zinjibar, in attacks that included airstrikes.

Mr. Iryani said he thought the increased involvement by the United States could inflame the situation in the south, and possibly draw in more foreign fighters. “I think it is going to be counterproductive,” he said. “We have new leadership. The Yemeni military should deal with this itself.”

And he said there was general support for Mr. Hadi’s approach, so far. “Most people are pleased by his caution and his calculated moves. He’s been doing O.K.,” Mr. Iryani said, but added that the new president needed to focus more on reforming the country’s institutions. “The key is to disengage the military from politics, while maintaining a balance,” he said. “If we upset the balance, I’m afraid we will have a new military dictatorship.”

A version of this article appeared in print on April 23, 2012, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Militants and Politics Bedevil Yemen’s New Government.

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