Yemeni Government Collapses as President and Prime Minister Resign

SANA, Yemen — The pro-American president of Yemen abruptly resigned Thursday night along with his prime minister and cabinet, leaving his Houthi opponents the dominant force in a leaderless country that is a breeding ground for Al Qaeda.

The Houthis, who are allied with Iran, have been strongly critical of the United States, particularly opposing Yemen’s cooperation with drone strikes against the Qaeda affiliate here, Al Qaeda in Yemen. At the same time, the Houthis, whose leaders are members of the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, are bitter opponents of Al Qaeda, which is Sunni.

The resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi came immediately after an apparently unsuccessful meeting between government and Houthi representatives, brokered by the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar. It was intended to help carry out an agreement between the two sides that had been reached a day earlier.


Mr. Hadi’s abrupt resignation caught American officials off guard. Diplomats, military officials and counterterrorism analysts were scrambling to assess next steps, including any decisions to evacuate Americans at the United States Embassy and the impact on counterterrorism operations in Yemen.


Since Monday, videos have surfaced — both professional and amateur — showing the violence unfolding between the Yemeni Army and Houthi rebels in the capital, Sana.


“We’re not in a position — and I don’t think any of you are either — to assess what it means at this point in time,” the State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, told reporters in Washington as news of Mr. Hadi’s resignation was breaking.


“Our top priority in Yemen remains the counterterrorism effort, where we’ve been targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for a number of years,” said Ms. Psaki, using another name for Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate. “That’s ongoing.”


Some American officials and lawmakers in Washington expressed grave concern. “The collapse of the government is devastating,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a telephone interview. “It’s very hard to say what comes after.”


Should the Houthis try to govern the country themselves, Mr. Schiff said, it could escalate sectarian violence with Yemen’s Sunni majority, and open the door for Al Qaeda to expand its reach.


“The Sunni tribes will not want to live under Houthi domination, and will look for any allies they can, including Al Qaeda,” he said.


With Houthi fighters already in control of much of the capital and many areas of northern Yemen, it seemed likely that they would take at least de facto control of the government.


A further concern is the prospect that southern Yemen will try to break away from the north, possibly threatening another civil war. The Houthis are identified with the old Kingdom of Yemen and the Arab Republic based in the north. The north and south were unified in 1990. In addition, they have aligned themselves with Yemen’s ousted former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced out in a deal brokered by the United States and Middle Eastern allies in 2011.


The resignation of Mr. Hadi, who was elected to succeed Mr. Saleh, came less than an hour after Prime Minister Khaled Mahfoudh Bahah said on his Facebook page that he and all of the cabinet members were stepping down. Their resignations came while the United Nations-brokered meeting was underway.


The press secretary for Mr. Hadi said he had formally handed over power to the speaker of Parliament, Yahya al-Raye, who would be required by the Constitution to form a caretaker government. It was not clear, however, if Mr. Raye was taking charge.


An official close to the president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of apparent concerns about his safety, said in a phone interview that the president believed that he had no choice but to resign. “The president expresses his disappointment at the difficult circumstances and challenges surrounding what is going on from the conflict with the Houthis,” said the official, sounding nervous and hanging up immediately.


The agreement reached on Wednesday brought a temporary end to fighting in the capital, but Houthi fighters did not leave as promised from their posts around the presidential palace, and some officials described their actions as amounting to a coup.


The Houthis denied that, however, and as an apparent concession, by Thursday had withdrawn from their positions around Mr. Hadi’s personal residence. On Thursday only private guards from Mr. Hadi’s home province, Abyan, could be seen outside his home.


Emissaries from both Mr. Hadi and Houthi leaders were seen visiting one another Thursday in an atmosphere of calm, and there were no initial reports of fighting after the resignations.


There were reports of violence in the province of Marib, an important oil-producing area east of Sana, with the Houthis clashing with Sunni tribesmen. Marib is also home to fighters from Al Qaeda in Yemen. Two people were reported killed on Thursday, according to elders in the area.


Mr. Benomar, a Moroccan diplomat and the representative of the United Nations secretary general, had returned to Sana on Thursday and immediately gone into meetings with representatives of Mr. Hadi and the Houthis.


The Houthis had agreed to pull back their fighters from central installations in Sana, including the palace, in exchange for several political concessions from Mr. Hadi, like amendments to a draft constitution. The deal was widely seen as a victory for the group, which has repeatedly used military force as a cudgel during political negotiations.


Another central provision of the agreement — the immediate release of one of Mr. Hadi’s top aides — also remained unfulfilled late Thursday. Yemen’s information minister, Nadia Sakkaf, said on Twitter that the aide, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, was still being held hostage by the Houthis despite a deal.

“They got what they want,” she said. “Why should they fulfill their promise?”


Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi political bureau, confirmed that Mr. Mubarak had not been freed.


In signing the deal, the Houthis had stopped short of a military takeover of the government, an outcome that analysts said the Houthi leadership preferred. Since taking over parts of the capital in September, the Houthis have become Yemen’s de facto ruling power, exerting control over important ministries and, increasingly, the country’s security forces.


At the same time, they have been able to lay blame for continuing challenges — including corruption and meager government services throughout the country — at the feet of Mr. Hadi and his leadership.


In addition to the crisis in Sana, many in Yemen have also been looking nervously to Marib, as a point of contention for the tensions unleashed by the Houthis’ military advances.


The Houthis are eager to assert their control in the province, which includes much of Yemen’s oil infrastructure and is seen as a strategic gateway to other parts of the country. But in a country that is two-thirds Sunni, Al Qaeda has been able to gain support among many opposed to the Houthis, breathing new energy into what had been a greatly weakened extremist movement.


The Houthis’ plans have prompted resistance and a furious reaction from Sunni tribesmen in the province, including some aligned with Islah, Yemen’s most prominent Sunni Islamist movement — now eviscerated by the Houthis, who considered it a hated rival. The province also has many followers of Al Qaeda in Yemen, whose opposition to the Houthis has helped them recruit there.


Saudi Arabia, which has recoiled at what it sees as the Houthis’ strong ties to Shiite Iran, has begun sending aid to the tribes in Marib, according to diplomats, raising fears that the province will become a focal point for an escalating proxy war.


Source: New York Times