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President replaced in Arab Spring back on Yemen’s stage, calling for peace

After two days of Saudi airstrikes and a barrage of anti-aircraft fire by Houthi rebels, Yemen’s former president reappeared Friday in Sanaa to call for a cease-fire and a return to United Nations negotiations.

Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh dominated Yemeni politics for 30 years until he was forced out of office in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. But he’s retained backing among the key military units that have gone over to the side of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who are now in power in the Yemeni capital.

Announcing his “peace initiative” on his own television channel, Saleh called for a halt in Saudi Arabia’s “Operation Decisive Storm” air assault, a halt to military operations by the Houthi rebels, and a return to U.N.-sponsored talks.

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. On Friday night, even as bombs rained down on Sanaa, U.N. special envoy Jamal Benomar invited leading politicians from all sides to meet Saturday at the Sanaa airport for a trip to an unstated destination, thought to be Morocco, for a resumption of peace discussions sponsored by Gulf Arab states. It wasn’t clear whether the meeting would take place; the Houthis hadn’t given a firm response.

One controversial element of Saleh’s proposal was that both Houthis and forces loyal to the president who replaced him, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, were to give up their claims to the southern port of Aden, which Houthis were close to seizing when the Saudi air offensive began.

Hadi fled Yemen on Thursday, saying he planned to attend the Arab League summit Saturday in Egypt. But if his stature has been weakened by his departure, so has that of the minority Houthis, who many Yemenis criticize for provoking the Saudi intervention through their rapid conquest of the country.

Heavy airstrikes and return anti-aircraft fire kept Sanaa awake for a third night Friday as Saudi Arabia kept up its bombardment and Houthi or Saleh forces fired back, lighting up the sky as though it were on fire. 

Simultaneously, troops loyal to both Saleh and the Houthis continued their march toward the southern province of Aden. Reports from the north Yemeni town of Sadah said 15 were killed and wounded in airstrikes, but it wasn’t clear if they were civilians or Houthi militia.

The Saudi-led intervention, to which a least seven other Arab countries are contributing warplanes and warships, seemed to knock the Houthis temporarily off balance after months of steady gains.

In his first response to the Saudi airstrikes, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al Houthi announced Thursday night a strategy of retaliation that appeared to have been hurriedly cobbled together. He called for creation of “internal and external security fronts” to fight the intervention, seizing full control over all state institutions and silencing any media supporting the intervention.

But Saleh’s “peace initiative” appeared cut from very different cloth, and his timing, just 24 hour after Houthi announced his, suggested that the insurgents had been unable to persuade a key ally that they know how to stay in control.

The United States, Turkey, Pakistan and other countries from outside the Arab world have promised logistical, intelligence and political support to the Saudis, but no one has thrown its support for a Saudi ground intervention, which could bog down the world’s biggest oil producer for years to come.

The most outspoken critic of the Saudi intervention was Iran, which according to many Western sources is reported to have stepped up the supply of arms, training, financial support and advisers to the Houthis in the past three months.

But there’s been no sign in Iranian state media or on the ground that Iran will step up its aid or its presence here.

Syria, Russia and China all criticized the Saudi intervention.

Yemenis appear to be of a mixed mind about the Saudi intervention.

Houthis have orchestrated protests in the capital against the intervention, but in other parts of the country such as Mareb, east of Sanaa, where battles have erupted between Houthis and tribal forces, the tribes publicly welcomed what they called a push back against Houthi militia advances. 

In Sanaa, public sentiment against the Houthis has risen since Thursday, with local residents blaming the Houthis’ presence for prompting the Saudi move. Some said they’re willing to tolerate the airstrikes if they rout the Houthis from the capital.

But that sentiment could be short-lived if Saudi Arabia sends ground troops into a country that historically has not accepted foreign occupation.

A significant obstacle to defeating the Houthis is that even though they already control state institutions in many areas around Yemen, they are more of a network of militias than a unified force, making it harder to define their defeat or loss. 

Al-Muslimi, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Sanaa; Gutman, from Istanbul. Special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee contributed from Istanbul.

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