Friday, June 3, 2011

Yemen heads toward tribal power struggle

SANA, Yemen — Thousands of tribesmen threatened yesterday to descend on Yemen’s capital to join the battle against forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as the country slid deeper into an all-out fight for power. Government forces in Sana unleashed some of the heaviest shelling yet against their tribal rivals in a dramatic escalation of the conflict.

For months, youth-led protesters have tried to drive out Saleh peacefully. But their campaign has been transformed into an armed showdown between Yemen’s two most powerful families, the president’s and the Ahmar clan. The Ahmar family heads the country’s strongest tribal confederation, which has vowed to topple Saleh after 33 years in power.

Their nearly two week-old battle in Sana raises a dangerous new potential in Yemen: that tribal fighting could metastasize and spread across the impoverished nation. Tribes hold deep loyalty among Yemen’s 25 million people, and the death of a member can easily draw relatives into a spiral of violence.

Yesterday, tribesman attacked security forces in the city of Taiz, south of the capital, apparently to avenge deaths of protesters there last week or to protect them from new crackdowns. Saleh’s security forces have struck hard at the street protesters, killing well over 100 since February, but until now tribal fighters had stayed out of the fray. Yesterday’s attack suggests other tribes may see the fighting between Saleh and the Ahmar clan as a sign it is time to get out their guns as well.

Deeply worrisome to the United States in particular is the possibility Al Qaeda branch in Yemen — one of the terror network’s most active franchises — will exploit the chaos.

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