JAN. 22, 2015
U.S. Fears Chaos as Government of Yemen Falls
By SHUAIB ALMOSAWA and ROD NORDLAND
SANA, Yemen -- The American-backed government of Yemen abruptly collapsed Thursday night, leaving the country leaderless as it is convulsed by an increasingly powerful force of pro-Iran rebels and a resurgent Qaeda.
The resignation of the president, prime minister and cabinet took American officials by surprise and heightened the risks that Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, would become even more of a breeding ground for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has claimed responsibility for audacious anti-Western attacks -- including the deadly assault on Charlie Hebdo in Paris this month.
The resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi brought full circle Yemen's Arab Spring revolution, which ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 amid massive popular protests. Now Mr. Saleh, who has lately made himself an unlikely ally of the Houthi rebels who toppled the government, is poised to return to the forefront of Yemeni politics.
But some experts warned that the country might be hurtling toward partition -- and civil war.
The events in Yemen were not the week's only death knell for accomplishments of the Arab Spring's first year, 2011. In Libya, that country's last remaining intact and functioning institution, its Central Bank with $100 billion in foreign reserves, lost its major Benghazi branch to marauding militiamen. 
"We are in uncharted territory now," said Jamal Benomar, the United Nations envoy to Yemen, raising several possible perils, including the prospect that southern Yemen might break away. "It's going to be very difficult days ahead," he said.
Charles Schmitz, an analyst with the Middle East Institute and an expert on the Houthis, said that of all Yemen's many political crises, Thursday's was among the worst yet.
"We're looking at the de facto partitioning of the country and we're heading into a long negotiating process but we could also be heading toward war," he said.
American diplomats, military officials and counterterrorism analysts were scrambling on Thursday to assess the next steps in Yemen.
A senior State Department official said Thursday night that the staff at the United States Embassy in Sana was being reduced "in response to the changing security situation." As news of Mr. Hadi's resignation broke earlier in the day, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said, "We're not in a position -- and I don't think any of you are either -- to assess what it means at this point in time."
"Our top priority in Yemen remains the counterterrorism effort, where we've been targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for a number of years," said Ms. Psaki, using the name for Al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate.
At the Pentagon, defense officials were also trying to gauge the murky chaos in Yemen. "We are still trying to sort out recent events," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in an interview Thursday. He added that "it's too soon to tell what this is going to mean for counterterrorism."
"From a military perspective, the character of that fight may change, but the energy we apply to it won't," he added.
Although the Houthis, who are believed to be financed by Iran, are strongly anti-American, they are even stronger opponents of Al Qaeda. The Houthis are dominated by a Shiite Muslim sect, the Zaydis, while Al Qaeda is rabidly anti-Shiite.
While the Houthis now control the capital, Sana, and many parts of northern Yemen, Al Qaeda has been strongest in Sunni tribal areas in Yemen, and has used Sunni anger at the swift rise of the Houthis as an effective recruiting tool -- particularly in oil-rich areas of eastern and southern Yemen.
The collapse of Mr. Hadi's government began last week when the Houthis staged what his supporters called essentially a coup, surrounding the presidential palace and effectively putting the president under house arrest. Fighting flared between the Houthis and Mr. Hadi's supporters but eased after an agreement was reached on Wednesday that called for the Houthis to withdraw, and the president to agree to governmental reforms that the Houthis had demanded.
When the Houthis did not withdraw, and apparently reneged on an agreement to release the president's chief of staff, whom they had taken hostage, Mr. Hadi and his supporters said they had become little more than puppets of the Houthi forces and stood aside, apparently daring them to seize power.
The resignation of Mr. Hadi, who was elected to succeed Mr. Saleh, came less than an hour after Prime Minister Khaled Bahah said on his Facebook page that he and all of the cabinet members were stepping down, "so that we are not made party to what is going on and what will happen." Their resignations came while a United Nations-brokered meeting to resolve the crisis was underway.
If the resignations were a gambit to force concessions from the Houthis, they apparently failed. After months of insisting they did not want to seize power from an elected government, the Houthis signaled late Thursday night that they would do just that.
According to local news reports and a Western diplomat, Houthi leaders were considering the possibility of forming a presidential council to govern the country that would include Houthi members, political parties and military officers. A Yemeni news agency, Al Masdar Online, said the Houthis had also issued a "no-fly list" of former ministers and officials who would not be allowed to leave the country.
According to the Constitution, the speaker of Parliament, Yahya al-Raye, would be required to form a caretaker government. It seemed unlikely that Mr. Raye was in any position to take charge, however, with Houthi fighters in control of key points in the capital, government buildings and the airport.
Mr. Hadi had come under increasing pressure from the Houthis, who demanded top government posts and undermined his control of the military and security agencies, according to analysts and diplomats. An official close to Mr. Hadi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of apparent concern about his safety, said in a telephone interview that the president believed that he had no choice but to leave office. "The president expresses his disappointment at the difficult circumstances and challenges surrounding what is going on from the conflict with the Houthis," said the official, sounding nervous and hanging up immediately.
Mr. Hadi's resignation was not accompanied by a new wave of violence in the capital, at least initially, although there were reports of violence in the province of Marib, an important oil-producing area east of Sana, with the Houthis clashing with Sunni tribesmen.
The Houthis are eager to assert their control in the province, which includes much of Yemen's energy industry infrastructure and is seen as a strategic gateway to other parts of the country.
The Houthis' plans have prompted resistance and a furious reaction from Sunni tribesmen in the province, including some aligned with Islah, Yemen's most prominent Sunni Islamist movement, which has been eviscerated by the Houthis, who consider it a loathsome rival. The province also has many followers of Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, alarmed at what it sees as the Houthis' strong ties to Shiite Iran, has begun sending aid to the tribes in Marib, according to diplomats.
A further concern is the prospect that southern Yemen will try to split off from the north, possibly threatening another civil war. Northern and southern Yemen were separate countries for many years, until their reunification in 1990, after which they fought a civil war in 1994.
The Houthis are identified with the old Kingdom of Yemen and the Arab Republic based in the north. In addition, they have aligned themselves with Mr. Saleh, whose is widely believed to have aided the Houthis when they swept into the capital last September.
Despite the Houthis' military prowess, their base is among Zaydi Shiites, who represent only 35 percent of the country's population.
Yet the group's populist message as they entered the capital last September -- promising to fight corruption and pursue economic justice -- spread their support beyond their base.
Mr. Hadi is not without his own supporters, particularly in the south, and in the important southern port city of Aden, militiamen loyal to Mr. Hadi have recently begun patrols.
On Thursday, a southern security committee ordered military personnel to report to the local authorities, rather than to the capital, Sana, in what was seen as a warning to the Houthis of the potential for imminent secession.
"We regret that it has come to this," Prime Minister Bahah said in his resignation statement Thursday. "We apologize to you the patient people of Yemen and pray that God will sail Yemen to stability and safety."
Shuaib Almosawa reported from Sana, and Rod Nordland from Amman, Jordan. Reporting was contributed by Nasser Arrabyee from Sana, Kareem Fahim from Baghdad, Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper from Washington, and Michael R. Gordon from London.