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US blacklists Yemen ex-president Saleh, Houthi commanders

Analysts warn that sanctions against the former president could backfire by emboldening his supporters.
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh delivers his speech on state television in this still image taken from video October 8, 2011. (AFP)

The United States on Monday imposed sanctions on Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and two senior Houthi rebel leaders for threatening the peace and stability of the country, two days after Saleh walked out on the new government.

The US Treasury said it was blacklisting Saleh, Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim and Abd al-Khaliq al-Houthi "for engaging in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security, or stability of Yemen."

The US move followed similar action by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on the three men last week, for threatening peace in the impoverished Arab country.

The UN sanctions prompted Saleh to pull his General People's Congress party out of the just-formed unity cabinet, plunging the country back into political crisis after months of attempts to foster a peace deal between Saleh, the Houthi insurgents believed allied to him, and their political rivals.

The Treasury said the three men "have, using violence and other means, undermined the political process in Yemen and obstructed the implementation of its political transition, outlined by the agreement of November 23, 2011... which provides for a peaceful transition of power in Yemen."

The sanctions freeze any assets the three might have in US jurisdictions and forbids Americans from doing business with them.

Saleh was the turbulent country's president from 1990 to 2012 before he was forced to step down following nationwide protests.

The US Treasury said that since then he has "reportedly become one of the primary supporters of violence perpetrated by individuals affiliated with the Houthi group."

Hakim, the Treasury said, was implicated in plotting a coup attempt against Yemen President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi as the Houthi forces sought to take over Sanaa, Yemen's capital.

The Treasury added that Hakim remained in Sanaa in September "to organize military operations so as to be able to topple the Yemeni government" if peace efforts failed.

Analysts say the sanctions could be counter-productive.

"Considering the increasing unpopularity of the UN and of western actors’ interventions in the country, it seems very possible that the issuing of sanctions could backfire. Even many who back the punitive measures see them as too little, too late," said Adam Baron, a journalist recently expelled from Yemen in a report for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Whether or not they prove effective in the short term, punitive measures by themselves will not bring Yemen closer to stability. More than anything, what Yemen needs is a government that is capable of demonstrating its legitimacy and showing that it is able to solve at least some of the many problems the impoverished country face."

The timing could not have been worse, said Abdullah Hamidaddin, a PhD candidate in King’s College London with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

"This will fall right into the hands of Saleh. The Americans literally extended a lifeline to the former Yemeni strongman, pushed him to the limelight, and emboldened his supporters to chant his name again," writes Hamidaddin.

New cabinet

Yemen's new government was announced on Friday under President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah. The new cabinet includes 37 ministers, including the prime minister, according to Yemeni television.

There are 29 newcomers, while seven ministers have retained their posts.

The new 36-member cabinet was formed as part of a UN-brokered peace deal under which the Houthis are supposed to withdraw from Sana’a, which they seized on 21 September.

On 1 November, the main parties signed an agreement brokered by the UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, for the formation of a government of technocrats.

Rebel representatives and their rivals, the Sunni Al-Islah (Reform) Islamic party, mandated Hadi to form a government and committed to support it.

Washington welcomed the new cabinet.

"This multi-party cabinet must represent the strength of Yemeni unity over individual and partisan interests that may seek to derail the goals of a nation," US National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.

Benomar has warned in an interview with AFP that, without the rapid formation of a government, tensions between Shiites and Sunnis were likely to increase, sinking the country deeper into crisis.

The new cabinet was formed shortly before the UN Security Council Friday imposed its sanctions against Saleh and two rebel Houthi commanders.

The Houthis are widely thought to be backed by Saleh, with Washington accusing him of being "behind the attempts to cause chaos throughout Yemen" by using them to weaken the government and "create enough instability to stage a coup".

Saleh's ruling party the GPC said the UN decision to penalise Saleh for allegedly obstructing the political process is "strange", insisting that the former strongman had "stepped down peacefully" for the sake of a political compromise.  

Saleh said he was willing to give up the immunity he was granted after stepping down in February 2012 following nationwide protests, and to face Yemeni justice.

"Find any [corruption] files, refer them to justice and lift the immunity. I will be there to appear in court," he told the GPC.

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