The Specter of Civil War Grows in Yemen as Saleh Backs Out of Peace Deal

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Yemen TV via Reuters TV / Reuters

A still image taken from footage of Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, giving a televised speech after refusing to sign a transition of power deal in Sana'a on May 22, 2011

Updated: May 23, 2011. 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time

Filthy water sloshed through the streets of Sana'a on Monday as a fierce rainstorm swept over the capital. But the rolling of thunder was soon competing with the booming of heavy artillery and the rat-tat-tat of machine gun-fire as security forces in the east of the capital battled with fighters from Yemen's most powerful tribe.

The prospect of civil war seemed to rear its head even more insistently as the republican guard of President Ali Abdullah Saleh used bullets and rocket propelled greandes to pound the residence of Sadeq al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribe and staunch supporter of the opposition. A stray missile thudded into the nearby Yemenia Airlines headquarters setting it ablaze while hundreds of journalists scrambled for cover in the basement of the state-owned Saba News Agency office as the violence raged on into the afternoon.

The tribal-military standoff then began to spread its way throughout the city. In retaliation for the assault on their leaders abode, armed Hasid fighters began encircling and attacking government buildings. Smoke billowed from the interior minister after a horde of men apparently fired anti-aircraft missiles at it. Tribal mediators eventually managed to stem the gun fire but not before seven soldiers and two civilians had died in the fearsome clashes.

The fighting was the fiercest yet between the pro- and anti-Saleh camps and came a day after President Saleh backed away from a promise to sign a Gulf-States-brokered deal that would end his 33 years in power. The stalemate prompted regional leaders late Sunday to abandon their efforts at mediating a solution to Yemen's crisis.

Sunday was also supposed to have been a day of celebration in Yemen, marking the 21st anniversary of the unification of country's north and south. But with Saleh once again reneging on an apparent agreement and the tribal fighting, no one was in the to celebrate. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis had come out onto the dusty streets of the capital Sana'a, only for their deafening calls for the president's departure to be thwarted once more by Saleh who, for the third time in two weeks, refused to sign the deal.

Despite complaining that it was as a "mere coup operation," Saleh had promised to sign the Gulf plan, which would see him exchange power for immunity, on Sunday. But in characteristic fashion, he balked at the last moment, claiming that he wanted the opposition who had inked the deal the day before to re-sign it at a public ceremony at his palace. He also suggested that the result of the impasse could be civil war — and that if that happened, it would be the fault of the opposition parties. "The opposition coalition will be held responsible if they escalate street protests and drag the country into a civil war ... they will be held responsible for the blood that has been and may be shed during the next days," Saleh said in a speech on Sunday.

Opposition officials refused to attend the palace ceremony because they'd already signed the deal; they claimed that Saleh was intent on forcing them to sign an amended version at the last minute.

"We are ready to go to the moon if he is really serious. But it is becoming clear that he is backing away," said opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri, addressing Saleh's insistence that the opposition attend the signing.

According to the state news agency Saba, Saleh phoned the Gulf leaders Sunday night to "renew his readiness to sign the initiative." But it was too little, too late. Hours after the call, the Gulf mediators announced they were bailing on their monthlong effort to ease the President out of office, in a move many fear may be the end of the road for a diplomatic solution to Yemen's mounting political tumult.

Sunday had started ominously. Riled by the news that their President might be being forced from office, thousands of gun-toting regime loyalists — many of them tribesmen from the surrounding countryside — flooded into the capital in a convoy of flag-adorned SUVs and Toyota pickup trucks. At first they tried their hand at civil disobedience: setting up roadblocks, forcing shops to shut and scrawling pro-Saleh slogans on opposition members' houses. Then they begin hounding the diplomats involved in the negotiations. The motorcade of the Chinese ambassador and the convoy of the Gulf Cooperation Council's secretary general, Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, were both set upon by armed men flinging water bottles and chunks of paving slabs.

The climax to the loyalists' efforts came when a horde of 400 tribesmen armed with traditional daggers and rusty Kalashnikovs encircled the U.A.E. embassy. The siege lasted three hours before the diplomats inside, including al-Zayani and the U.S. and British ambassadors, were taken in military helicopters to the safety of the President's palace.

"The Gulf deal is a coup, an attempt to overthrow our democratically elected President," said Ahmed al-Sowfi, a tribal leader from the province of Amran, who stood blocking the entrance to the embassy with a Kalashnikov slung over each shoulder. "Ali Saleh has stood by this country for three decades. If he leaves, there will be chaos in Yemen."

Meanwhile, a few miles north of the embassy, an estimated half-million antigovernment protesters were staging their biggest pro-democracy rally since unrest broke out three months ago, filling a 6-mile (10 km) stretch of motorway with tents, banners and makeshift restaurants. Raising the specter of a broader conflict, they protested under the watchful eyes of soldiers and tanks sent by Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a former Saleh confidant who joined the opposition.

"We knew from the start [Saleh] would have to be dragged from his palace kicking and screaming. It's protests, not political negotiations, that will force him out," shouted Hasan Abutalib, a young protest leader perched on the rung of a lamppost who was filming the crowds on his mobile phone.

With the Gulf-mediated efforts for Saleh's departure all but dead, analysts say the U.S. may have to reconsider its options. Saleh's deal-dodging antics provoked a staunch reaction from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who accused the President of "turning his back on his commitments and disregarding the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people."

The U.S.'s relations with the embattled Yemeni ruler have grown increasingly shaky in recent months. Saleh has on numerous occasions expressed his frustration with the U.S. and its role in Yemen, and he recently accused the U.S., along with Israel, of "fomenting unrest in the Arab world."

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, suggests the U.S. should take a stronger stance on Yemen. "In terms of U.S. national-security interests, it is better that Saleh goes as soon as possible," he wrote on his blog Waq al-Waq. "The longer this dangerous stalemate goes on, the worse it is for Yemen and U.S. national security. It is time for the U.S. to get off the bench and start playing, really playing."

But demonstrators in Yemen maintain that anything more than covert assistance from the U.S. would prove catastrophic. "This is our battle. We call on America to denounce Saleh and nothing more. [Americans] have caused us enough trouble by propping up Saleh all these years as it is," said protest leader Abutalib as he tossed a Yemeni flag into the roaring crowd.