Yemen leader pressed to give up power

Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh should sign a regionally developed plan to hand power to a transitional government, Obama administration officials said Tuesday.

“We strongly support the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative which would lead to a peaceful and orderly political transition,” State Department Counterterrorism chief Daniel Benjamin and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Janet Sanderson said in a joint statement.

“Only the GCC initiative was put into writing and signed by both the ruling General People’s Congress party and the opposition coalition Joint Meeting Parties,” the duo said in written testimony prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Near Eastern and Central Asian Affairs subcommittee.

Benjamin and Sanderson said Saleh has refused to sign the GCC pact even though he has “repeatedly” said he plans to sign it. They noted he is the “last remaining signatory.”

Saleh has been in Saudi Arabia for more than a month recovering from burns sustained during a bomb attack. The situation in Yemen has destabilized because of that incident and months of political unrest.

Once the signature of Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 31 years, is secured, “a transition of power can begin immediately,” the two State Department officials told the Senate panel.

The Obama administration is eager for an easing of tensions in Yemen, which has become a key battleground in America’s war against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is based there, and has both the desire and ability to launch attacks against the United States.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said AQAP poses a “direct threat” to the United States.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the committee, called Yemen “increasingly important” to U.S. national security.

Since political unrest began, AQAP has been able to gain territory — including control of some southwestern cities — in Yemen, Benjamin said during a hearing Tuesday. There is a chance the group could take control of additional cities, and the threat it poses to the U.S. will only grow if the group “gains access to the sea,” Benjamin said.

Yemeni security forces have been “under siege” in the southwest part of the troubled nation, and government efforts to provide help have so far failed, Sanderson told the subcommittee.

What’s more, U.S. military officials have had to cease some of the training and other activities it was conducting with Yemeni security forces.

“It is vitally important” that a political transition to a new government takes place soon so those programs can be revived, he told the panel.

Washington has spent $48 million so far in fiscal 2011 just on humanitarian assistance to Yemen and millions more on military and security efforts.

Risch raised concerns that dollars spent today would be used later by Yemeni allies-turned-foes.

That has happened before to Washington. One example is Afghanistan, where the U.S. supported that nation’s fight against the Soviet Union, only to do battle with some of its former allies in the ongoing post-9/11 conflict there.

But Benjamin said there is no evidence that any Yemeni security force personnel were ready to jump ship and join al Qaeda.