WASHINGTON -- The Obama Administration is weighing an unprecedented diplomatic act -- whether to bar a friendly president from U.S. soil.
U.S. officials were evaluating Tuesday an awkward request from Yemeni strongman and longtime counterterrorism partner Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has said he plans to come to the United States for medical treatment for wounds suffered in a June assassination try, and he has asked for a U.S. visa for entry to the country. Fearful of appearing to harbor an autocrat with blood on his hands, the Obama Administration was trying to ensure that Mr. Saleh visits only for medical care and doesn't plan to stay, U.S. officials said.
Washington's hesitation reflects the shifting alliances and foreign policy strategy prompted by a year of upheaval in the Arab world. Mr. Saleh has been a U.S. ally against al-Qaeda and soon will transfer power under a U.S.-backed deal with Yemen's opposition, aimed at ending months of instability. He isn't subject to any U.S. or international sanctions.
But he is accused of committing gross human rights violations during a year of internal conflict, and the United States is trying not to burn any bridges with Yemeni political groups. Political asylum for Mr. Saleh in the United States, or the appearance of preferential treatment from an administration that has championed peaceful and democratic change, would be unpopular with Yemenis who've fought to depose the dictator of 33 years.
Officials said Washington's suspicion that Mr. Saleh may seek political asylum was delaying his trip's approval. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. U.S. officials said they were troubled by Mr. Saleh's recent comments portraying his trip as a move designed to ease the political transition.
"What we're looking at now is a request to come to the United States for the sole purpose of medical treatment," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "That permission has not been granted yet."
Mr. Toner declined to elaborate on the assurances the United States wanted from Mr. Saleh or offer a timetable for a decision. He also couldn't say whether any provisions existed under U.S. law to prevent the Yemeni leader from visiting the country -- provided he assures officials he'll only stay temporarily.
In that case, Mr. Saleh almost surely will be granted entry, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It's unclear when, if ever, the last time the head of state of a friendly government was blocked from visiting the United States.
One official went so far as to say Mr. Saleh's exit from Yemen might be beneficial by lowering the risk of disruptions in the lead-up to planned February elections. But President Obama's national security team was expected to make the final decision on Mr. Saleh's request. Mr. Obama was being briefed on developments while on vacation in Hawaii.
Anti-Saleh protesters said they were in two minds about the possible U.S. trip.
"We are at a loss, between our desire to see Saleh go and avoid Yemen sliding into civil war, and the desire to see him tried for his crimes," said Samia al-Aghbari, a protest leader who was detained briefly after protesters said Mr. Saleh's forces killed nine people on Saturday.
"If he [Saleh] is away and forbidden from being part of the political atmosphere in Yemen, it may help. … But he still has money and weapons in the country and if this doesn't change, nothing will change at any level in Yemen," activist Hamza Shargabi said.
Demonstrators began protesting against Mr. Saleh and calling for his ouster in February. The Yemeni government responded with a bloody crackdown, leaving hundreds of protesters dead and stoking fears of instability in a nation grappling with burgeoning extremism. Yemen's dangerous al-Qaeda branch has used the vacuum to make its presence felt in the south of the country.
International pressure has mounted for months for Mr. Saleh to step aside. A June rocket attack on his compound left him badly burned and wounded, and led Mr. Saleh to seek medical treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia for three months. U.S. officials had hoped he would remain there, but the Yemeni leader returned and violence worsened.
Last month, Mr. Saleh agreed to a Saudi-backed deal to hand power to his vice president and commit to stepping down in exchange for immunity. The deal angered Mr. Saleh's opponents, who demanded he be tried for his attacks on protesters.
Mr. Saleh's immediate plans are unclear. The wily leader of three decades has maintained his rule over a country divided by tribal and regional loyalties by outsmarting his rivals, but Mr. Toner said the United States is trying to remind everyone of the "importance of continuing along this agreed-upon path of political transition that will lead to the next election."
A U.S. official said Mr. Saleh's office informed the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa that the outgoing leader would leave Yemen soon and travel elsewhere abroad first, before possibly coming to the United States.