By Yara Bayoumy
DUBAI (Reuters) - Efforts to launch peace talks to end an eight-month-old war in Yemen are being thwarted in part by Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fears a negotiated settlement would drive him from power, diplomats who follow Yemen said.
Hadi, driven out of the capital Sanaa earlier this year by Houthi fighters that Arab neighbors say are backed by Iran, has returned to lead a government from the southern port of Aden, recaptured in July by troops from a Saudi-led Arab coalition.
Like his opponents, Hadi says he is committed to U.N.-led talks to end the war in one of the Arab world's poorest countries. But diplomats following the peace process say he is increasingly an obstacle, raising pressure on his Saudi sponsors to withdraw their support or help shunt him aside.
"Hadi has been trying to block any kind of talks because he knows that any settlement will be the end of this political career," said one diplomat who follows Yemen, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Hadi has never been popular and it’s not in his interest that the war stop before complete victory. Diplomats know that Hadi is not a serious candidate, and a settlement means he’s out."
A second diplomat said there was now broad agreement that talks were the way forward because the war had reached a stalemate on the ground. But "a few dissenters" including in Hadi's camp were nonetheless holding out for a military victory.
"And since that is seen as elusive, they are seen to back the conflict because a peaceful solution has nothing to offer for them."
Hadi strongly denies he is being obstructive.
"In fact, it is the opposite. The president has announced the list of participating delegates, and they are supported by an advisory team and they are ready for dialogue at any time the U.N. announces," said Mukhtar al-Rahbi, an official in Hadi's office.
Since an inconclusive round of talks in Geneva in June, U.N. special envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has repeatedly sought to smooth the way to talks either in Switzerland or Oman. Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said on Monday talks could begin in early December.
Any end to the conflict depends on Saudi Arabia, which launched its biggest military operation for decades to back Hadi, at a time of falling oil export income and escalating regional turmoil. Riyadh says the Houthis are puppets of its regional rival Iran, and it has acted to prevent them from dominating the state, like Iran's Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
Though Saudi Arabia says it is committed to the U.N. peace process, it has not curbed its bombing. Diplomats say the Saudis may not let the war end as long as the Houthis remain a dominant militia.
Meanwhile, the fighting has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in the Arabian peninsula's poorest country and derailed efforts to combat Islamist militancy. Thousands of people have died in fighting and bombing by Arab air forces. The United Nations believes all sides are guilty of war crimes.
"The humanitarian suffering on the ground: we’re compromising the entire future of the nation. And compromising a future generation," said the second diplomat.
Yemen's powerful branch of al Qaeda, for years the target of a secret CIA drone war, has emerged with control of swathes of territory, including the port city of Mukalla, capital of eastern Hadramout province.
The Saudi-led forces have informally cooperated with al Qaeda fighters against the common Houthi foe. Some al Qaeda fighters meanwhile have rallied behind a newly opened Yemeni chapter of Islamic State, an even more violent jihadi movement, which has taken on all sides, blowing up both Houthi mosques in Sanaa and targets from Hadi's government and his Arab allies in Aden.
The Houthis, mainly drawn from the Zaydi sect, a Shi'ite group that ruled a thousand-year kingdom in northern Yemen until 1962, say they are leading a nationalist revolution against corrupt officials, Islamist extremists and their foreign allies.
They have formed a potent alliance with Hadi's predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, their former enemy who ruled for more than three decades until he gave way to Hadi in 2012 after "Arab Spring" protests. The war has restored Saleh's popularity with a large segment of the population, and he is seen as likely to push for a role for his former ruling party in any settlement.
The Houthis emerged as the most powerful force in the country this year after routing Hadi's government from Sanaa, and despite later losing back Aden to the Saudi-led forces, still look unlikely to be dislodged from the capital soon.
While Hadi's government accuses the Houthis of obstructing talks, diplomats say they have appeared more willing than Hadi.
"The Houthis are possibly more understanding and they’re more lucid,” said the second diplomat, who was nevertheless strongly critical of Saleh and his "unholy alliance" with the Houthi fighters.
NOT IN SYNC
Even before Hadi was driven out of Sanaa by the Houthis, the new president had developed a reputation as a weak leader who failed to bring rival militias to heel or curb corruption.
Western and regional officials have voiced support for Hadi's prime minister and vice president, Khaled Bahah, widely seen as a rival, who some describe as a more capable technocrat.
"The leadership between Bahah and Hadi is not in sync," the second diplomat said, offering praise for Bahah as a "healer" while describing Hadi as more self-interested.
Baleegh al-Mikhlafi, a leader of the Justice party that supports Hadi, dismissed reports of a rift with Bahah as "administrative differences" that would not affect peace talks. But one of Hadi's advisors privately acknowledged differences between the two figures and said Riyadh was trying to resolve them.
"Saudi Arabia is trying to bring it under control because it is ... benefiting the other side politically. But these efforts have not succeeded," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Although the peace talks between Hadi's government and the Houthis could begin soon, diplomats are far from optimistic.
The second diplomat described tactics being used to undermine negotiations "by setting the stakes of the talks knowingly so high, so that the other side finds them unacceptable."
Said the first diplomat: "The talks, if they happen, will yield no results because the divide between the two groups is big and there's no clarity on which basis these talks would take place."
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Peter Graff)