The Obama administration apparently was blindsided by the surprise return Friday of Yemen's wounded and embattled leader after three months abroad for medical care, a development that further complicates already crumbling U.S.-backed mediation efforts to prevent a civil war and a possible al-Qaida power grab in the largely lawless Arab country.
The United States repeated its demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh immediately transfer authority and call for new elections later this year, but the wily leader of 33 years offered no hint that he was prepared to relinquish power. Saleh didn't immediately appear before the Yemeni public, but called in a statement for a cease-fire and negotiations with opposition groups, and there was little to suggest the U.S. and its allies had gained new leverage in his absence to pressure him into a deal.
The American call was unchanged from the one it made before the assassination attempt in June that sent Saleh fleeing to Saudi Arabia for treatment on burns covering large parts his body and bleeding inside his skull. While Saleh had always vowed to retake his place in Yemen, U.S. officials acknowledged the timing of his return came as a surprise.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn't warned of Saleh's imminent return when she met earlier this week with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in New York, officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. The officials cautioned, however, that Saleh wasn't a prisoner in the kingdom and that it was unclear whether the Saudi government even knew.
Regardless, the development augured poorly for one of the deadliest and most entrenched conflicts to emerge out of the Arab Spring. Around 100 people have been killed just this week as regime forces shelled protesters and fired at them with snipers, and opposition militia battled troops in the streets. And while negotiations continued behind the scenes for a political solution, they seemed to be making little headway.
The power vacuum has Washington on alert. U.S. officials have pressed Saleh and his advisers for most of the year to agree to a peaceful handover of power, fearful that a prolonged crisis could hamper counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida militants in the country, seen as perhaps the most dangerous threat worldwide for U.S. national security. The branch has been blamed for several spectacular plots on U.S. soil, including the foiled Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an airliner over Detroit and another last year to blow up cargo planes entering the United States.
"In light of the current instability in Yemen, we urge President Saleh to initiate a full transfer of power and arrange for presidential elections to be held before the end of the year," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "The Yemeni people have suffered enough and deserve a path towards a better future. We understand that hundreds of thousands of people are in the streets of Sanaa today and the tensions are high."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also called on Saleh to accept a deal presented months ago by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, under which he would resign and hand power to his vice president to form a national unity government. In return, he'd be immune from any prosecution. Saleh has repeatedly promised to sign the agreement, only to change his mind every time.
"We want to see Yemen move forward," Nuland said, "and whether President Saleh is in or out of the country, he can make this happen by signing this accord."
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa was scrambling to get more information on Saleh's next steps, officials said. They avoided terming his return a setback for peace hopes, perhaps because there has been so little progress made in his absence that would now be jeopardized. Still, just his presence in Yemen was sure to inflame tensions.
Saleh's game-plan may revert to one that has become a familiar refrain for the besieged leaders of the Arab world: Offer vague pledges of reform or transition, crack down aggressively on dissent, warn of a terrorist or Iranian takeover, and hope that a prolonged stalemate leads American interest to wane and international diplomatic efforts to dissipate. Hundreds have been killed and thousands wounded in his regime's crackdown since February.
Yet unlike Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya or Bashar Assad in Syria, Saleh's warnings over what a power void might mean for al-Qaida have received some sympathy in the United States, which has pledged to maintain its counterterror alliance with Yemen regardless of whether Saleh remains in power..
Washington has stepped up efforts to combat the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula offshoot, using drones to target militants in Yemen's rugged provinces, but officials say the political instability has hampered the fight. In Yemen's south, where the government's control is weakest, the chaos across the country has allowed militants to capture and hold a string of towns.
U.S. officials said they held out hope, however slim, that Saleh might be returning to lead his country's transition and heed the calls for his resignation from angry protesters, and the renegade former military units and armed tribal fighters supporting the opposition.
The early signs were ominous. Fighting continued after Saleh returned at dawn Friday and Abdullah Obal, an opposition leader, said he believed Saleh "returned to run the war and drive the country into an all-out civil war."
Yemeni state television said Saleh was in good health, but U.S. officials said they couldn't confirm his condition.