WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will allow Yemen's outgoing president to come to the U.S. temporarily for medical treatment, a move aimed at easing the political transition in Yemen, a key counterterrorism partner.
A senior administration official said Ali Abdullah Saleh would travel to the U.S. this week. The State Department said Sunday that Saleh was expected to stay in the U.S. for a limited amount of time corresponding to the length of his treatment.
Earlier Sunday, a presidential spokesman in Yemen said Saleh had left the capital of Saana on a jet headed for the Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman.
The U.S. official did not say how long Saleh planned to stay in the U.S. or whether he would return to Yemen, Oman or go elsewhere after finishing his treatment. The official was not authorized to discuss details about Saleh and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Late last year, Saleh agreed to transfer power to his vice president, paving the way for February elections, after months of protests calling for his ouster. The Yemeni government responded with a bloody crackdown, leaving hundreds of protesters dead and sparking wider violence in the capital with rival militias.
But Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades, continued to wield power behind the scenes, and U.S. officials believed getting him out of Yemen was necessary in order to ensure the elections take place.
Saleh requested a visa to travel to the U.S. in December, putting the U.S. in the awkward position of either having to bar a friendly president from U.S. soil or risk appearing to harbor an autocrat with blood on his hands.
As U.S. officials weighed Saleh's request, they sought assurances that he only planned to stay in the U.S. for temporary medical treatment.
A June rocket attack on his compound left him badly burned and wounded, and led Saleh to seek medical treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia for three months. American officials had hoped he would remain there, but the Yemeni leader returned and violence worsened anew.
The situation offered an eerie parallel to three decades ago, when President Jimmy Carter allowed the exiled shah of Iran into the U.S. for medical treatment. The decision contributed to rapidly worsening relations between Washington and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic regime in Tehran, with Iranian students occupying the U.S. Embassy in Iran a month later.
Fifty-two American hostages were held for 444 days in response to Carter's refusal to send the shah back to Iran for trial.