SANAA, Yemen (AP) “” It was a stunning attack by al-Qaida in a country that is one of the world’s hottest fronts against the terror group. Militants rampaged through an army camp in southern Yemen before dawn, catching soldiers asleep and killing more than 180. Amid the turmoil, the defense minister ordered helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
The air force commander, Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, refused, according to a senior official at the main air force base in Sanaa.
Notably, al-Ahmar is a half brother of ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. Many in the military and government say the refusal last week is one example of how Saleh is working behind the scenes to obstruct the new U.S.-backed government as it tries to bring reform and step up the fight against al-Qaida militants in this impoverished Arab nation.
Saleh was the fourth ruler to fall in the Arab Spring wave of revolts in the Mideast, stepping down in the face of protests after more than three decades in power. But while he’s no longer president, he has effectively emerged as a parallel ruler: His loyalists and relatives still pervade state bodies and military, and officials who back the new government say he uses those levers to persistently undermine them.
The goal, they fear, is to pave the way for Saleh to return to power by showing the new government is incapable of dealing with the country’s multiple problems. Saleh has set up an office in the giant, extravagant Sanaa mosque that he built during his rule and that bears his name, just around the corner from the presidential palace. There he meets with his loyalists and powerful tribal leaders who back him.
The result is constant friction between Saleh’s supporters and the new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The Americans hope Hadi can reinvigorate the fight against al-Qaida, which many Yemenis say Saleh’s military waged only halfheartedly. Al-Qaida’s branch here is seen by Washington as the most dangerous arm of the terror group after repeated attempts to carry out bombings on American soil. It only grew stronger during the past year’s turmoil, when militants seized control of several towns in the south, including Zinjibar, a provincial capital.
U.S. officials say the Pentagon plans to assist Hadi with about $75 million for military training and equipment. After talks in Sanaa last month, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said Hadi was “committed to destroying al-Qaida.”
But Brennan acknowledged Hadi could face resistance in reforming an army that is seen as hobbled by corruption and divided loyalties. He said some in the military “have tried to take advantage of their positions for personal gain.”
Restructuring the military, he told reporters, “threatens their personal interests.”
One of Hadi’s first acts after being sworn in Feb. 25 was to order the removal of the top military commander in the south, Gen. Mahdi Maqoula, a Saleh loyalist. Officers complained that Maqoula was hindering supplies to forces fighting militants.
But Maqoula remained in his position for another week, several military officials in the south said. During that week, ammunition and weapons from a military storehouse in the south disappeared, apparently smuggled out and sold, the officials said. A supply of sophisticated sniper scopes vanished, they said, blaming Maqoula and his fellow officers for the theft. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Maqoula finally left his post on March 4. Hours before he stepped down, a force of al-Qaida fighters carried out the surprise, pre-dawn attack on the army camp. The fighters sprayed tents where soldiers were sleeping with gunfire and killed at least 185. They dumped their bodies in the desert, some beheaded, and paraded dozens of captured soldiers through a nearby town.
The massacre fueled accusations that Saleh loyalists in the military have been unwilling to fight militants “” or even have colluded with them….