By Cynthia Johnston and Mohamed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's president warned on Tuesday that his country would descend into civil war if he is forced to quit and Washington voiced concern about instability in the Arabian state where al Qaeda has a stronghold.
Unrelenting anti-government protests, which first began on February 3, and fresh defections among the ruling elite have added to the pressure on Saleh, a U.S. ally against radical Islamists, to step down immediately after 32 years in power.
But an aide said the president would leave office only after organizing parliamentary polls by January 2012 and he refused to hand over power without knowing who would succeed him.
"President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he will hand over power through (parliamentary) elections and the formation of democratic institutions at the end of 2011 or January 2012," Saleh's media secretary Ahmed al-Sufi told Reuters.
"Ali Abdullah Saleh does not seek power. Ali Abdullah Saleh will not leave without knowing who he is handing over to."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates voiced rare public alarm about the situation in Yemen: "We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen." He added that he was mainly anxious to avoid "diversion of attention" from opposing al Qaeda there.
The opposition movement swiftly rejected Saleh's offer to stay until January 2012. The coming hours would be "decisive," Mohammed al-Sabry, a key opposition spokesman, said.
In speeches to army officers and tribal leaders in Sanaa, Saleh said Yemen would face civil war and disintegration because of efforts to stage what he called a "coup" against his rule.
"You have an agenda to tear down the country, the country will be divided into three instead of two halfs. A southern part, northern part and a middle part. This is what is being sought by defectors against the unity," he said, referring to northern Shi'ite rebels and al Qaeda militants.
"Those who want to climb up to power through coups should know that this is out of the question. The homeland will not be stable, there will be a civil war, a bloody war. They should carefully consider this," Saleh told army commanders.
SLIDE INTO FAILED STATE
Western countries fear the political crisis could hasten a slide into failed nation status for a country that borders the world's biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, and major shipping routes. One scenario could see the country split into separate zones along tribal, military or regional lines.
Al Qaeda has already used Yemen to attempt attacks in Saudi Arabia and the United States in the past two years. The Shi'ite Houthi movement has staged a number of revolts against Saleh.
One opposition leader offered Saleh the prospect of secure retirement if, like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he would go quietly, unlike Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"He shouldn't follow the style of Gaddafi by destroying the country and killing people," Yassin Noman, rotating head of Yemen's opposition coalition said.
"After this long term of governing, he should say: Thank you my people, I leave you peacefully."
"I know the morality of Yemeni people. If he left peacefully, they will look at him as a real leader. He will be able to live wherever he likes," Noman told Reuters. "They will ensure him a very nice life. His dignity will be kept."
Several generals and officials have abandoned Saleh this week after a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on Friday, as one of the most violent of the uprisings that have swept the Arab world has pushed his administration to breaking point.
On Tuesday, Abdel-Malik Mansour, Yemen's envoy to the Arab League, told Al Arabiya television he was siding with protesters. Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani, whom Saleh sacked as environment minister on Sunday along with the rest of the cabinet, said on Facebook he was joining "the revolutionaries."
Defections have included generals, tribal leaders, diplomats and ministers. They have gained momentum since gunmen loyal to Saleh opened fire on demonstrators in the capital Sanaa on Friday. Fifty-two people were killed.
A crowd of around 10,000 gathered outside Sanaa University in a rally that has been repeated for the past seven weeks. Echoing demands that have been satisfied in Tunisia and Egypt and continue to be heard elsewhere across the region, they chanted: "The people want the fall of regime."
The body of one of those killed on Friday was brought to the protesters before burial. "The people want a trial for the butcher," they shouted, hurling abuse at Saleh.
France on Monday became the first Western power to call publicly for Saleh to stand down. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe described his departure as "unavoidable."
Attention shifted to the United States and Saudi Arabia, two key allies who see Yemen as a bulwark against a dynamic al Qaeda network that has made skilful use of Yemen's poverty, tribal system and central government dysfunction to use the country as a staging ground for attacks against U.S. and Saudi targets.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi returned from Riyadh on Monday where Saleh sent him to seek Saudi-led Gulf Arab mediation. A diplomatic source said there had been no indication of success in the effort to involve those countries.
Tribal sources said tribal sheikhs had embarked on mediation efforts on Tuesday, focusing on a potential agreement that protests could continue, violence against protesters would be investigated and a smooth transition of power would take place.
No more details were available.
U.S. President Barack Obama, grappling with pressures for change across the region from the Gulf to the Atlantic, has called for "peaceful transition" in Yemen, where the lack of a clear successor to Saleh has increased nervousness abroad.
On Tuesday, soldiers were preventing cars from driving along roads close by Saleh's presidential palace in Sanaa. Late, on Monday night residents heard explosions and shooting near a presidential place in Yemen's eastern port of Mukalla.
General Ali Mohsen, commander of the northwest military zone and Saleh's kinsman from the al-Ahmar clan, said on Monday he was backing the protesters and warned of civil war.
Tanks were deployed outside the presidential palace in the southern port city of Aden, focal point of a separatist movement hoping to escape Yemen's myriad problems by recreating the former South Yemen that feels cheated by unity under Saleh.
Saleh is a perennial survivor who has held power through civil war, uprisings and militant campaigns. But the death of the 52 protesters has pushed opposition to new levels.
Saleh himself appeared to realize the gravity of the bloodshed, sacking his cabinet and declaring a 30-day state of emergency. Shortly after Tunisians forced out their president in January, Saleh offered some concessions to his opponents in Yemen, notably vowing not to stand for re-election in 2013.
Last week, he also offered a new constitution giving more powers to parliament and announced an array of handouts. But he rejected calls for a phased handover of power this year.
Opponents complain that Yemen under Saleh has failed to meet the basic needs of the country's 23 million people. Unemployment is around 35 percent and 50 percent for young people. Oil wealth is dwindling and water is running out.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Alastair Macdonald)