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An Interview With President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Yemen, in the southern corner of the Arabian peninsula, is facing security threats on several fronts. An uprising by northern rebels belonging to the Zaydi branch of Islam reached the outskirts of the capital last month. Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch claimed several attacks on foreign embassies and other targets in recent weeks. The past year has also seen riots and demonstrations across the south, which was a separate country until 1990. The current discontent, some say, has its roots in unresolved conflicts dating back to 1962, when a revolution toppled north Yemen's ancient system of religious rule and the country's modern history began. Robert F. Worth, the Times's Beirut bureau chief, interviewed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier this month in the capital, Sana. The president spoke in Arabic; this transcript is a translation.
The New York Times: There are military checkpoints throughout the capital. It's apparent that the Houthi rebels [who are from the northern province of Saada, and belong to the Zaydi branch of Islam] are nearby. How did the rebellion first originate? And how did it come so close to the capital?
President Ali Abdullah Saleh: As a matter of fact, the conflict in Saada started in 1970 when revolution was struggling to prevail. There were elements loyal to the Imam [north Yemen's religious ruler prior to 1962] at that time, royalist elements, trying to defeat the Yemeni revolution, and after the elapse of 70 days, when the capital was besieged by these elements, the revolution finally prevailed. In fact, the revolution prevailed after a reconciliation with Yemen's neighbors. At that time they stopped supporting the Imam and everything went in favor of the revolution, and all these elements disappeared. After the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, we declared a multiparty system and political pluralism. These elements exploited the atmosphere of freedom and respect for human rights and freedom of expression, a free press, and started to assemble again. They exploited the democratic experiment we had started, using different political parties. For example, the Haq party, and the Popular Unity party. Some of these parties' elements started hoping to restore the Imam's rule in Yemen, and they started again in same place – Saada – as they had in 1970. This time they did it under the motto "Death to America, death to Israel." They tried to convince ordinary people and the ordinary public that the political regime in this country is supported by the USA. Of course uneducated people started to sympathize with them. The real reason they received unofficial support from Iran was because they repeat same slogan that is raised by Iran -- death to America, death to Israel. We have another source for such accusations. The Iranian media repeats statements of support for these [Houthi] elements. They are all trying to take revenge against the USA on Yemeni territories.
How did this conflict reach Bani Husheish [a suburb of Sana]? Bani Husheish and other provinces around Sana were used during the 70 days blockade, during the revolution [in 1962]. But I'd like to confirm for you that the government has been able to control the situation in Bani Husheish and win a victory there. As for the checkpoints you see around Sana, they are there because of elements supporting rebels in Saada – they support them with money, media, internet statements etc. The government had to take such measures to prevent any movements or logistic support for them. At same time we are facing terror attacks by al Qaeda. They pose another threat to the government of this country. They use the pretext that the government is cooperating with the USA. So we facing two dangers, one al Qaeda, led by bin Laden, and the other led by the royalist elements in Saada.
The New York Times: There are military checkpoints throughout the capital. It's apparent that the Houthi rebels [who are from the northern Some describe the rebellion in Saada as sectarian, a struggle between Shiite rebels and Sunnis (who constitute the majority in Yemen). But in fact the rebels in Saada are Zaydis [an offshoot of Shiism that is distinct from the Shiite Islam practiced in Iran. Yemen's population is at least 25 percent Zaydi]. Many in the Yemeni government are also Zaydi, including you. Is the conflict really sectarian?
President Saleh: The Imamate system is racist. It's not a sectarian issue. They try to exploit people, they say the state is fighting all Zaydis. But I am a Zaydi. The rebels also believe that power should be given to the Hashemite family, the so-called Ahal al Beit [the name given to those who claim lineal descent from the prophet Mohammed].Some Hashemites are nationalists and patriots who believe in democracy and the multi-party system. The others believe in a racist vision, the restoration of the role of the Imam.
The New York Times: You say Iran unofficially supports the rebels. Why would they support them if they are not true Shiites, as the Iranians are?
President Saleh: They support them because they think that the rebels are from the Ahal al Beit. Just as they support Hassan Nasrallah. They have this approach. And also to settle scores with the USA. Of course Iran cannot reach the USA, so they settle scores with the USA in other countries, whether in arab nations like Yemen, or otherwise. Meanwhile we don't have any coordination with the Americans to face this situation. We have bilateral cooperation with the USA in terms of combating terror from al Qaeda. It is military and intelligence cooperation.
The New York Times: As you mentioned, recently there have been attacks in Yemen that appear to be by al Qaeda. Is there a new generation of Qaeda fighting here?
President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. Bryan Denton for The New York Times
President Saleh: We follow up Qaeda elements, they are under close monitoring. They carry out attacks here and there, but our security apparatus is chasing them and hunting them down. Our intention is to completely eradicate this dangerous disease, which is not related to Islam at all.
The New York Times: The United States government has criticized the Yemeni approach to counter terrorism, which includes sometimes granting parole to jihadists. Can you explain Yemeni approach?
President Saleh: Actually the Yemeni government has adopted two tracks in terms of Qaeda. The first track is to convince elements of Qaeda that the ideas they carry are wrong and they should go back to the righteous path. Of course, we carry out dialogue with those elements that have not carried out acts violence. If they are convinced, we release them with close monitoring and control. We do not just forget about them. The other track is using force, hunting them down, with tight security measures. Sometimes the US government criticizes dialogue with these elements. Some elements within the US government consider it as a kind of conspiracy, but this is a completely misunderstanding. We wonder why they criticize us, while when we ask them to hand over our Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo, they put a lot of conditions on us, on the Yemeni government, saying we should prepare a complete and comprehensive rehabilitation program and we should not harm these people. So we are really in confusion about the policy advocated by some elements in the American government.
The New York Times: The US government has asked Yemen to extradite Jamal al Badawi, who is wanted in connection with the attack in 2000 on the U.S.S. Cole [in which 17 American sailors died]. What is the Yemeni government's attitude toward Mr. Badawi? What is the reason for not extraditing him?
President Saleh: The USA asked us to hand over Badawi and Jaber Elbaneh [also wanted by the United States on terrorism charges]. But the Yemeni constitution prohibits handing over any Yemeni. As for Badawi, he was involved in the Cole bombing, was put on trial, convicted and jailed. Then he escaped. When he felt he would be recaptured, he offered to hand himself over. He said he would cooperate with the Yemeni security apparatus to convince other Qaeda elements to hand themselves over and stop harming Yemeni and American interests. He said, if I fail to convince them, I will cooperate with the security forces to find their locations. But the USA made a big fuss about this issue, the Democrats or the Republicans, I believe because of the election process. They created a kind of crisis because of this issue. So we put him back in jail. Now we are continuing his trial along with that of Jaber Elbaneh. Now both are in prison. I believe that the partisan competition in the USA negatively and badly affected the Yeneni security and economy. …
The New York Times: A question about ideological extremism. Some say you have relied politically on Sheik Abdel Majid al Zindani [a popular Yemeni cleric who was listed by the United Nations and the United States as a "specially designated global terrorist"], and that he creates an atmosphere that could lead to terrorism. Do you agree? If so, why do you work with him?
President Saleh: Actually, Sheik Zindani is just like other famous religious clerics. He was initially supported by the USA, he and others. They were all sent to Afghanistan to face the former Soviet invasion and occupation. And the USA forced friendly countries at that time, including Yemen, the Gulf states, Sudan, and Syria, to support the mujahedeen -- they called them freedom fighters -- to go fight in Afghanistan. The USA used to strongly support the Islamist movement to fight the Soviets. Then, following collapse of Soviets in Afghanistan, the USA suddenly adopted a completely different and extreme attitude towards these Islamic movements and started to put pressure on the countries to have confrontation with these Islamic movements that were in the Arab and Islamic territories. Otherwise the USA would consider working with these movements. Because we have political pluralism in Yemen, we decided not to have a confrontation with these movements, and they participated with us in presidential and parliamentary elections. Sheik Zindani [a co-founder of the leading opposition party] was neutral during these elections. They wanted him to have supporting position but he was neutral. Zindani is here in Yemen, he is under the control of everybody in Yemen, including the CIA. The CIA has elements inside al Iman university, which is owned by Zindani. … The USA accused Zindani of supporting terrorism because he collects donations for Hamas. The USA considers Hamas a terrorist group. We don't consider Hamas a terrorist group. We consider it a group that fights against the Israeli occupation. And for the independence of the Palestinian people. Now we can see the USA starting a kind of negotiation with Hamas. Why does the USA accuse people of supporting terrorism, at same time they negotiate with Hamas? This is the complete and strange paradox of American policy. So we call on the USA to delete Zindani's name from list of terror supporters. …
The New York Times: Can you explain the current unrest in southern Yemen?
President Saleh: The south is an inextricable part of the unified state of Yemen. Previously, the Imamate ruled in the north, and the British were in the south; this is the reason for the former division of Yemen. Why are we now confronting these royalist elements in the north? If the rule of the imam were restored, Yemen would be divided into four parts, not just two. The Yemeni people restored their unity by peaceful means in 1990. It was a partnership between the regimes in the south and the north. There was a transitional period that lasted one year. We adopted political pluralism. The Yemeni Socialist Party [the leading party in the South] had a kind of alliance with the opposition in the north to gain power at the ballot box in the elections of 1993. And it was trying to have an alliance with the Haq and Popular Forces parties – those who favored the imamate – because they are opponents and enemies of the republican system. The Yemeni Socialist Party failed to achieve this goal in the 1993 elections. … They started contacts with some neighboring countries to get support for new a new division. There was a political crisis, followed by 67 days of civil war in 1994. Our constitutional legitimacy prevailed. The separatists were completely defeated. A general amnesty was declared. They kept quiet. But they were still trying to exploit divisions, and searching for excuses, as failed separatist forces. They now exploit high prices and high living standards. Following the 1994 war those who used to work in the southern army returned to their houses. … When prices rose, they started to exploit this matter, they went to streets to incite people, and raise the old southern slogans, which are completely baseless. In spite of the fact that we had two rounds presidential and parliamentary elections, and the ruling general people's congress won these elections, including senior southern figures in the ruling party …. Among the measures we adopted: we allocated revenues of oil for the southern governorates, which were deprived for more than 25 years of Marxist southern regime. We built the infrastructure, including electrical projects, roads, universities, and we restored public properties which were confiscated during rule of socialist party. And we see such an uproar now because we created a comprehensive development in the south. This is because of our efforts in the south.
The New York Times: You have been president for 30 years. How long do you see yourself remaining president? Some critics say you seem to want to put your eldest son in power, and they say this undemocratic. How do you envision future?
President Saleh: First of all, I will complete my term in office and will not nominate myself for another term. … my son is a Yemeni citizen. We have a democratic system, and he has the right to nominate himself if he wants to. But I have advised him not to do so. Ruling Yemen is difficult. I always say it is like dancing with snakes.
For Yemen’s Leader, a Balancing Act Gets HarderJUNE 21, 2008
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