By Erika Solomon
SANAA - A deal to ease Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power could be ready for signing with opposition parties within 15 days, a senior ruling party official said on Saturday.
Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) and the opposition coalition, the Joint Meetings Parties (JMP), have been wrangling for months over a Gulf-brokered transition plan, even as Yemeni protesters demand the president steps down immediately.
Despite widespread skepticism that any deal is within reach, Sultan al-Barakani, deputy head of the GPC and part of Saleh's close circle, told Reuters the two sides would soon conclude talks on preparing for a new government and signing the deal.
"All of these steps, I'm optimistic will be completed in the next 10 to 15 days," he said in an interview. "What we need more time for is finding a new (presidential) election date."
Barakani said negotiations over how to run the election could delay the poll until January or February. "The conditions in the country for elections are not there yet," he said. "We're used to these things taking six months."
Tensions remain high in Yemen, where eight months of anti-Saleh protests, sporadic armed clashes and economic disruption have pushed the country deeper into misery. The United States and neighboring Saudi Arabia fear the turmoil may give al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing more freedom to operate.
Saleh, who has been convalescing in Riyadh since a June bomb attack on his compound, last week gave Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour the authority to sign the Gulf transition plan on his behalf, in what some analysts saw as a way for him to allow the plan to pass without stooping to sign it himself.
But some diplomats in Sanaa expressed concerns that Saleh, a master of political survival, may later use his remaining presidential powers to reject the deal.
Saleh has three times backed out of signing the Gulf Cooperation Council's original plan, which stipulated that he would resign 30 days after signing.
The opposition and ruling party recently agreed to modify the plan to allow the transition to occur via an early election.
At least one sticking point remains. The opposition wants Saleh to transfer all his powers to the vice president before the poll to prevent him from using them to sway the vote. The ruling party says Saleh should quit only after the election.
"The president leaving through a political agreement? I reject it today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow," Barakani said at his office in Sanaa, surrounded by presidential guards.
Ruling party moderates have been willing to concede the opposition demand, but hardliners like Barakani have resisted.
"We have a political system built on a constitution. We need to respect it," Barakani said. "The presidency is selected based on an electoral system. Why should we destroy this government just to satisfy a few dozen people?"
Tens of thousands of Yemenis have staged sustained protests demanding Saleh's unconditional removal. Many say they will stay on the streets until Saleh and all of his relatives and allies are out of power, no matter whether a political deal is reached.
Speculation has swirled over when Saleh might come back from Saudi Arabia -- and whether his return might push Yemen back to the edge of civil war between his forces and opposing tribesmen.
Barakani said he expected Saleh back in Yemen by October, as long as doctors approved, arguing that Sanaa would remain secure and that the president would return "long before elections."
"My sense after speaking to the doctors over the (Ramadan) holidays was that his treatment is ending, so he could come around the end of September or the beginning of October."