Suspicions are mounting in Yemen that outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh is trying to wiggle out of a U.S.-backed deal meant to bring his 33-year, autocratic rule to an end.
Both opposition leaders and officials close to the president said Thursday they remain unconvinced that Saleh is serious about leaving power. They worry he will try to use the unstable country's continued unrest to keep his seat on the grounds that Yemen's active al-Qaida branch will step up operations if he leaves.
Following 10 months of mass street protests calling for his ouster, Saleh in November signed a deal put forward by Yemen's powerful Gulf neighbors and backed by the United States, agreeing to pass power to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes he committed while in office.
Six weeks later, he remains president, Yemeni state media still speak of him as leader of the nation and his allies frequently hinder the work of a new unity government sworn in by his vice president.
"The president is basically not convinced that he has to leave power, so he will resist with all his remaining force," said a ruling party figure in Saleh's last government who was close to the president. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Adding further fuel to such concerns, Saleh changed his tune this week on his plans to travel to the United States. Mediators have been saying for weeks that he would seek medical care in the U.S. for continued treatment of wounds sustained in a June bomb blast at his palace. In late December, Saleh said he would go to help calm the turmoil in his country. Then on Saturday, he announced he would stay.
Saleh's request for a visa put U.S. officials in a bind. Allowing him in would open them to criticism from protesters who want Saleh to stand trial in Yemen for deadly crackdowns that have killed hundreds of protesters. Refusing him entry, however, would be hard to explain since he remains a U.S. ally. Washington says it is still considering whether to grant it.
On Wednesday, a leader in Saleh's ruling General People's Congress party said Saleh had decided to remain Yemen in response to concerns that his departure could be bad for Yemen and the ruling party.
The opposition accused Saleh of stalling, recalling how for months he repeatedly agreed then refused to sign the Gulf proposal before he ultimately signed.
"Saleh is repeating the scene from the past when he refused to sign the proposal," opposition leader Mohammed Sabri said. "Today he is trying to get out of carrying out the proposal and transferring power."
The U.S. has long considered Yemen a necessary if not entirely reliable ally in the fight against the country's active al-Qaida branch and has provided Yemeni anti-terror forces with funds and training.
Yemeni officials said Saleh is seeking to preserve his rule by using the same scare tactic he has used for decades: telling the U.S. and Saudi Arabia al-Qaida will have a freer hand to operate on Yemeni soil if he goes.
Al-Qaida remains active in Yemen. Military officials said four soldiers and six militants were killed in new clashes Thursday near the southern city of Zinjibar.
The militants took advantage of chaos early in the anti-Saleh uprising to overrun Zinjibar and a number of other towns. Government troops have been fighting to dislodge them since.
Under the Gulf initiative, presidential elections are to be held on Feb. 21 and Saleh is forbidden from running. The parties to the agreement, Saleh's ruling party and an opposition coalition, also agreed not to nominate anyone other than Saleh's vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Meanwhile, Saleh's allies in the government have continued to fight for his interests. His People's Congress Party is part of the unity government, alongside opposition parties, and his son and nephew command the best trained and equipped elite security forces in the country.
At a meeting of ruling party officials this week, party leaders accused the defense minister of cooperating with the opposition by not naming a Saleh associate to a high security post, party officials said. Saleh's backers disrupted another meeting by accusing the information minister of turning state media into an opposition mouthpiece and not reporting on the president's activities.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings were closed.
Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University said Saleh may have lost some power, although his three decades ruling have allowed him to install strong allies throughout Yemen's government and security services.
Saleh has repeatedly said he intends to play a future role in Yemeni politics _ something this wide network of allies can facilitate.
"This is something he may be able to do even without an official position," Johnsen said.
Hubbard reported from Cairo.