DUBAI (Reuters) - The top Yemeni general backing pro-democracy protesters is, like Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a crafty survivor who has wielded power for his own benefit, according to U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. General Ali Mohsen, a powerful figure close to Saleh, threw his support behind the democracy movement earlier this week and sent in troops to protect protesters in the capital of Sanaa, where they have gathered in the tens of thousands to pressure Saleh into giving up his grip on power after 32 years.
Yet as far back as 2005, Thomas Krajeski, then the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, painted a picture in diplomatic cables of a brutal military commander likely to back a more radical Islamic political agenda and draw little public support.
"Ali Mohsen's name is mentioned in hushed tones among most Yemenis, and he rarely appears in public," Krajeski wrote in a cable obtained by Reuters. "Ali Mohsen... is generally perceived to be the second most powerful man in Yemen. Those that know him say he is charming and gregarious."
Noting Mohsen's role in ruling Yemen with an "iron fist," the cable said he controls at least half of Yemen's military. Despite its detail and strong opinions, other parts of the cable contained key inaccuracies, such as Mohsen's estimated age as well as the region he commands.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have long relied on Saleh to try and stop al Qaeda from using Yemen as a base to plot attacks on both countries. The impoverished Arabian Peninsula country is deeply divided, and was already on the brink of becoming a failed state before protests erupted in January, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
After Mohsen's defection on March 21, Saleh reacted by warning against a "coup" that would lead to civil war and beefed up his personal security for fear of an assassination attempt.
Days later, Mohsen told Reuters that he had no desire to take power or hold office, and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in "tranquility, peace and relaxation far from the problems of politics and the demands of the job."
The diplomatic cable also indicates that Mohsen would be viewed by the public as an unpalatable successor to Saleh.
"Ali Mohsen would likely face domestic as well as international opposition if he sought the presidency... Yemenis generally view him as cynical and self-interested."
One reason, according to the U.S. ambassador at the time, was because of his side business in smuggling.
"A major beneficiary of diesel smuggling in recent years, he also appears to have amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products," his cable said.
Although the opposition welcomed Mohsen's support earlier this week, they are also wary of his loyalties, which fall along the country's tribal and ideological fault lines.
Northern Shi'ite rebels see Mohsen as a ruthless military leader who led the military campaign against them in a bloody civil war. Leftists and southerners worry that their goals for democracy will be overtaken in a military power struggle, while the Islamist opposition is thought to view Mohsen more favorably.
More than likely, Krajeski wrote in the cable, Mohsen would try and orchestrate a transition where he could anoint Saleh's successor: "If he holds true to form, Mohsen would likely prefer to play kingmaker, choosing another loyal military officer to hold the presidency."
(Reporting by Reed Stevenson)