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U.S. Cables: Top Yemeni General, Now Siding With Protesters, Was Linked to Corruption

Though several key military officials in Yemen threw their support behind protesters this week, Wikileaks cables suggest that some may not share the protesters’ reform agenda.

Several top military officials have split from Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the wake of a violent government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. In announcing their support for the demonstrators on Monday, the generals dealt a blow to Saleh’s power base, but will their influence be a boon for the protesters’ cause?

Recently released U.S. embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks suggest it might not be that simple.

In 2005, U.S. diplomats raised the possibility of a popular revolt in Yemen, noting that the status quo would be “increasingly difficult to maintain, given a declining economy, rising frustration over official corruption, and increasing U.S. and international pressures on the regime to change the way it does business.” (Check out Mother Jones’ explainer on what's driving the protests in Yemen, plus our blurb on why the U.S. and Yemen are “frenemies.”)

The cable noted that General Ali Mohsen—a longtime Saleh ally and one of the key generals who defected on Monday—was involved in lucrative black market dealings and would be “a leading contender” as a replacement for Saleh.

“Yemenis generally view him as cynical and self-interested,” the cable said. “A major beneficiary of diesel smuggling in recent years, he also appears to have amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products.” It also noted that Mohsen had “questionable dealings with terrorists and extremists” and his support for a “more radical Islamic political agenda than Saleh.”

The Obama administration—which in January said it was “committed to the people of Yemen”—has condemned Yemen’s violence against protesters but has not called for Saleh to step down. White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan also called President Saleh on Sunday to express concern. Yemeni government forces killed more than 50 people last week in one of the harshest crackdowns there since the protests began.

“I don’t think it’s my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said when asked today whether Saleh should step down. "We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen."

Asked on Monday whether it’s time for Saleh to go, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the situation was “very fluid right now,” that President Saleh "needs to do more," and that "we abhor the violence."

“Our position remains that we feel that there needs to be a process in place that leads to a peaceful solution to Yemen’s current political situation,” Toner said. “This must include genuine participation by all sides.”

Those calling for Saleh to step down are a loosely cobbled coalition of tribal leaders, Islamists and socialist leaders, which have only recently joined pro-reform youth in demonstrations. As the Los Angeles Times notes, these groups have different visions for the future of the impoverished and politically fractured country.

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