Obama throws support behind Yemen VP before vote

By AHMED AL-HAJ | February 19, 2012 | 9:55 AM EST

A man holds umbrella with a photograph of vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi during a pro-election rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. Yemen will hold presidential elections according to the Gulf-brokered deal under which President Ali Abdullah Saleh who stepped down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. His vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is the only candidate in the balloting. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — President Barack Obama threw his support behind Yemen's Vice President just days before an election expected to enshrine him as the new leader of a country the U.S. sees as crucial to the fight against al-Qaida.

Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, read the text of the letter to reporters Sunday after delivering it to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi during a two-day visit to the troubled Gulf Arab nation.

Yemen, the Arab's world's poorest country, has been torn apart during a year-old uprising seeking to oust longtime autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh's security forces have used lethal force against demonstrators, killing hundreds, and many others have died in armed clashes with security forces.

Yemen's active al-Qaida branch, which has carried out attacks in the U.S., has exploited the unrest to seize territory in the country's south. The U.S. has long considered Saleh a necessary but unreliable ally in the fight against the al-Qaida branch, and has been actively involved in brokering a deal to ease the crisis.

Under a deal presented by Yemen's powerful Gulf Arab neighbors, Hadi is to be rubber stamped as the country's new leader in presidential elections Tuesday. He is the only candidate.

In the letter, Obama said he looks forward to deeper relations between the two countries and vows that the U.S. will be "a strong and reliable partner."

He also said he hoped Yemen's political transformation would inspire other Middle East nations facing political transitions.

"I know you face challenges ahead, but I am optimistic that Yemen can emerge as a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur when people resist violence and unite under a common cause," he said.

Brennan met with Hadi during his two-day visit to Yemen that ended Sunday.

Speaking to reporters, Brennan said the U.S. looked forward to cooperating with Yemen to fight al-Qaida and spoke of the massive reforms needed. He criticized leaders in the security apparatus who have used forces under their command for personal gain.

As for Saleh, who is currently in the U.S. for medical treatment, Brennan said he expected Saleh to return to Yemen after the election. U.S. officials have said that while Saleh's U.S. visit is solely medical, they hope his absence from Yemen will ease the transition.

Many in Yemen worry that Saleh, who has ruled for 33 years through a mix of shrewd politics and brute force, will continue to influence Yemeni politics through his many relatives and allies he has placed in high positions.

Speaking of Saleh's future, Brennan said he would have no official role in government.

"Ali Abdullah after the election will be a private Yemeni citizen, and his future is something that he and his family will need to determine," he said.