SANAA, Yemen — In what could be the first formal move against a high-level official following the recent release of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, Yemeni lawmakers will question the country’s deputy prime minister Wednesday for remarks he apparently made to an American military general.
One of the leaked cables details a meeting between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi and U.S. Gen. David Petraeus. The conversation between the three men suggests that Yemeni officials sought to cover up U.S. airstrikes on Al Qeada targets inside the country.
Yemeni lawmakers said they had summoned al-Alimi to specifically explain a comment made by the president in which he admitted to lying to the Yemeni public about the series of U.S. air strikes and al-Alimi's own comment that he lied to parliament.
The first strike, in December last year, which killed dozens of civilians along with several wanted militants, was at the time presented by Saleh as Yemen's own work, backed only by U.S. intelligence.
“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told Petraeus on Jan. 2, according to the leaked cables.
At this, al-Alimi interjected, joking that he had just “lied” by telling parliament that Yemeni forces alone had carried out the strikes.
Yemen had previously denied there had been any direct U.S. involvement in air strikes on militants inside the country, even as American security officials in August said Washington was looking to increase air strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP.
“If he did lie, as he was quoted in WikiLeaks, he should apologize to parliament and resign immediately,” Mansur al Zindani, an opposition lawmaker, told GlobalPost.
Al-Alimi’s comments prompted 50 Yemeni members of parliament to sign a petition calling on him to explain the statement quoted in the cable.
Potentially even more damaging for the president is an offhand remark he made in the same cable while complaining about drugs and weapons being smuggled from Djibouti, which lies directly across the Red Sea, into Yemen.
“Tell (Djiboutian President) Ismail Guelleh that I don't care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen — provided its good whiskey."
Lacking legitimacy in the eyes of many Yemenis, Saleh has in recent years tried to bolster his image as an Islamic leader. He prays regularly in public and in 2008 built a giant mosque in downtown Sanaa, the capital, that cost about $60 million.
Some analysts and local Islamic leaders fear the Islah Party, an Islamic opposition group, or for that matter Al Qaeda, might use such revelations that Saleh has a taste for alcohol to delegitimize the president, or even attack him.
“Everybody knows alcohol is forbidden. We have a clear rule in Islam that prohibits it. We should remember that there are two sides to this, the legal side and the Islamic side,” said Mohammed Ali Ameri, a local imam.
Media coverage of the WikiLeaks story in Yemen has been limited. The independent Yemen Times newspaper and Al-Masdar, a Yemeni news website, are the only outlets so far to have reported extensively on the leaked cables.
After initially remaining silent, the Yemeni government put out a statement on its official news agency Dec. 1 claiming the cables were “inaccurate.”
“Information posted on the WikiLeaks website about Yemen does not accurately or correctly report what happened in the meetings between Yemeni and U.S. officials,” the statement read.
“The Republic of Yemen does not care about information in the WikiLeaks documents,” it continued.
“I don’t think he [the deputy minister] will be made to resign, after all he was only doing the president's bidding. But I’m sure he’ll get a good grilling by the parliament,” Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor of politics at Sanaa University, told GlobalPost.