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Yemen's leader causes headaches in Washington

American officials still evaluating awkward request from Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh
Image Credit: AP
Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh has said he plans to come to the United States for medical treatment for injuries suffered in a June assassination attempt.
Gulf News

Washington: The Obama administration is weighing an unprecedented diplomatic act - whether to bar a friendly president from US soil.

American officials were evaluating on Tuesday an awkward request from Yemeni strongman and longtime US counterterrorism partner Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh has said he plans to come to the United States for medical treatment for injuries suffered in a June assassination attempt, and he has asked for a US visa for entry to the country.

Fearful of appearing to harbor an autocrat with blood on his hands, the Obama administration was trying to ensure that Saleh visits only for medical care and does not plan to stay, US officials said.

Washington's hesitation reflects the shifting alliances and foreign policy strategy prompted by a year of upheaval in the Arab world. Saleh has served as an American ally against Al Qaida and will soon transfer power under a US-backed deal with Yemen's opposition aimed at ending months of instability.

He isn't subject to any US or international sanctions. But he also is accused of committing gross human rights violations during a year of internal conflict, and the US is trying not to burn any bridges with Yemeni political groups likely to take part in future governments.

Political asylum for Saleh in the United States, or the appearance of preferential treatment from an administration that has championed peaceful and democratic change, would be highly unpopular with Yemenis who have fought to depose their dictator of 33 years.

Officials close to Saleh said Washington's suspicion that he may seek political asylum was delaying approval of his trip. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

However, American officials appeared to substantiate those concerns and said they were troubled by Saleh's recent comments portraying his trip as a move designed to ease the political transition.

"What we're looking at now is a request to come to the United States for the sole purpose of medical treatment," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, refusing to go into the specific of the evaluation.

"That permission has not been granted yet." Seeking to further underscore its position, the administration also issued a written statement later on Tuesday insisting that no decision had been made.

And officials at the White House and State Department refused to go any further publicly. Toner declined to elaborate on the assurances the United States wanted from Saleh or offer a timetable for a decision.

He also couldn't say whether any provisions existed under US law to prevent the Yemeni leader from visiting the country - provided he assures officials he demonstrates he will only stay temporarily.

In that case, Saleh almost surely will be granted entry, US officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because visa evaluations are supposed to be confidential. It's unclear when, if ever, the last time the head of state of a friendly government was blocked from visiting the United States.

One official went so far as to say Saleh's exit from Yemen might be beneficial by lowering the risk of disruptions in the lead-up to planned February elections.

The US is committed to doing everything it can to ensure those elections take place, the official said, but President Barack Obama's national security team was expected to make the final decision on Saleh's request.

Obama was being briefed on developments while on vacation in Hawaii. Demonstrators began protesting against Saleh and calling for his ouster in February. The Yemeni government responded with a bloody crackdown, leaving hundreds of protesters dead, and stoking fears of instability in a nation grappling with burgeoning extremism.