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Yemen Approaches Civil War

About seventy people were killed today on the streets of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. Twenty-eight were killed this morning in what the government says was an explosion at an arms depot and what the protesters say was government forces firing on residential areas.

Residents of the capital are frantically trying to leave the city, where machine-gun fire, explosions and mortar fire are being reported. The US State Department has ordered all non-essential diplomats and embassy staff to evacuate.

The clashes are between the security forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and members of a tribal federation led by Sadiq al-Ahmar. Al-Ahmar’s forces have joined together with the thousands of Yemenis encamped in Sanaa demanding Saleh’s ouster. Al-Ahmar has allegedly taken custody of about seventy members of Saleh’s security forces, and Saleh has issued orders that al-Ahmar be arrested for armed rebellion.

Saleh’s two main backers, the Americans and the Saudis, have both dumped him, notwithstanding their respective fears of al Qaeda violence and Iranian interference. The Saudis, via the GCC, are giving him 30 days to step down with immunity from prosecution. The G8 countries, which are meeting in Deauville, issued a statement that said, “We deplore the fighting that occurred overnight which was a direct result of the current political impasse, for which President Saleh has direct responsibility due to his refusal to sign the GCC transition agreement.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concurs. “We support the departure of President Saleh, who has consistently agreed that he would be stepping down from power and then consistently reneged on those agreements,” she said. About the sharp rise in bloodshed today, she said, “We are very troubled by the ongoing clashes. We call on all sides immediately to cease the violence.”

Civil war has already started, according to Uzi Rabi, director of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and author of the forthcoming book Yemen: The Anatomy of a Failed State. “Unlike other Arab states, it isn’t the youth who are initiating things in Yemen. Yemen has a different rhythm, even if some would like to compare it to the revolutions sweeping the Middle East now…More often than not, dictators are able to hold very complex states in a relative state of stability. It’s no doubt that if Bashar [Assad of Syria], Saleh and [Libya’s] Muammar Gaddafi fall, what we will likely see is a collection of mini-states, and that means instability, something that isn’t healthy for the Middle East, at least in the short term.”