- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

For two years, the Obama administration has had a relationship of convenience with Yemen. The United States kept the Yemeni government armed and flush with cash, while Yemeni leaders helped fight al Qaeda or, as often, looked the other way while Washington did.

That relationship is about to get a lot less convenient.

Of all the uprisings and protests that have swept the Middle East this year, none is more likely than the one in Yemen to have immediate damaging effects on U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Yemen is home to al Qaeda’s most active franchise. If President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government crumbles, so does Washington’s influence there.

On Tuesday, Mr. Saleh pledged to step down by year’s end. His 32-year hold on power has weakened during street protests over the past month.

Female anti-government protestors pray during a demonstration Wednesday demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the same day, the parliament enacted sweeping emergency laws after the embattled president asked for new powers. (Associated Press)
Female anti-government protestors pray during a demonstration Wednesday demanding the resignation of ... more >

Several foreign diplomats have turned against him. On Monday, three senior army commanders joined a protest movement calling for his ouster, but Mr. Saleh vowed not to hand power to them and branded their defections as an attempted coup.

Current and former U.S. government officials and analysts speculated on Mr. Saleh’s fall.

“In the counterterrorism area, it will be a great loss,” said Wayne White, a former senior State Department intelligence analyst.

Whoever replaces Mr. Saleh will inherit a country on the brink of becoming a failed state. There is a secessionist movement in the south. Pirates roam its waters.

A rebellion in the north has been a proxy fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Half of Yemen’s citizens are illiterate. A third are unemployed.

Drinking water is scarce, yet the population is growing at one of the fastest clips in the world and far outpacing the government’s ability to provide even the most basic services. Half the country lacks toilets.

With all that, the challenge for the United States will be to persuade Yemen’s next leader to continue an unpopular campaign against al Qaeda.

Sheik Hamid al-Ahmar, a leading member of the opposition who has been mentioned as a possible president, has dismissed al Qaeda in Yemen as a creation of Mr. Saleh’s government.

The Obama administration, however, considers the group to be the most serious terrorist threat to the United States.

The group, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, includes about 300 terrorists sheltered by tribal allies in a rugged country twice as big as Wyoming. The group was behind the nearly successful bombings of U.S. cargo jets last fall and a passenger airliner on Christmas 2009. The attacks grabbed the attention of Washington, which previously had regarded the terrorist group as a threat only in the Middle East.

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