REPORTING FROM CAIRO AND SANA, YEMEN -- The inauguration of Yemen’s president was barely over Saturday when a car bomb exploded at a presidential palace, killing at least 25 people and highlighting the dangers the new leader faces in trying to bring stability to the long-troubled Arabian Peninsula.
The brazen attack was a taunting welcome to President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who was sworn in to end the 33-year despotic rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The country’s spiraling chaos took another twist when Saleh, who had been undergoing medical treatment in the U.S., returned home before Hadi addressed the nation. Saleh’s reappearance and the palace bloodshed indicated that the tribal and political unrest that has gripped Yemen for more than a year will not likely be calmed by the election of a new president.
Shortly after Hadi vowed in his televised speech to parliament to defeat an emboldened Al Qaeda network, a suicide bomber raced toward a palace in the southern town of Mukalla, more than 300 miles west of the capital, Sana, where Hadi was inaugurated. No one claimed immediate responsibility for the blast, but a security official said it bore the imprints of Al Qaeda.
Witnesses said a car bomb exploded outside the palace gates as troops in the Republican Guards were gathering for lunch. Most of the dead and the 45 wounded were soldiers. The strike, reportedly carried out by a militant who had escaped prison last year, was believed to be the latest in a string of assaults by Al Qaeda, which has exploited the country’s instability by seizing territory and towns in the south.
"One of the most prominent tasks is the continuation of war against Al Qaeda as a religious and national duty," Hadi told lawmakers before the explosion.
Sana has been a Washington ally against terrorism. But despite U.S. drone attacks that have killed Al Qaeda operatives, including American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki, Yemen has failed to rout Islamic militants from tribal lands and rugged mountain redoubts.
"There are sides that don’t want to see political advances in Yemen," said Ali Said Hassan, a political analyst and head of the Political Development Forum. "This incident is a response to President Hadi's speech in which he promised to fight against Al Qaeda.... Al Qaeda wants to say that we are still here in Yemen and we are strong."
Hadi also faces a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, a fractious military, tribal animosities and economic problems that have made Yemen the Arab world’s poorest nation. Hadi, who was vice president under Saleh, won Tuesday’s uncontested presidential election after an internationally backed agreement to nudge Saleh aside after months of deadly anti-government protests.
Many wonder if Saleh, the fourth Arab leader to be forced from power over the last year, will reassert himself into Yemeni politics. Recovering from an attack on his compound in June that left him badly burned, Saleh remains a clever manipulator of the country’s dysfunction. He has many loyalists, and his son and nephews control the country’s military and security agencies.
Hadi has been in the ruling elite for years. He is accustomed to Saleh’s whims and Al Qaeda’s incursions. In his address to parliament, he appeared to understand the peril he faces.
"Expected changes don’t come by mere wishes and hopes but through democratic dialogue, and through a serious and correct approach to the key issues that racked the country," he said.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman and Zaid al-Alayaa
Photo: Newly elected Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, center, attends a session in the parliament in Sana, Yemen, on Saturday. Credit: Yahya Arhab/EPA