By Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt
HONOLULU,US — The Obama administration has decided in principle to allow the embattled president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to enter the United States for medical treatment, subject to certain assurances, two administration officials said
But those conditions — including a proposed itinerary — have not yet been submitted to the American Embassy in Yemen, these officials said, and no visa has yet been issued to Mr. Saleh.
The decision of whether to admit Yemen’s longtime leader has stirred a vigorous debate within the administration, with some officials fearing sharp criticism for appearing to provide a safe haven for a reviled Arab figure accused of responsibility for the death of hundreds of antigovernment protesters.
The complex negotiations over Mr. Saleh’s visa request attest to the high stakes for the administration, which urgently wants to secure room for political progress in Yemen but does not want to allow Mr. Saleh to use a medical visit as a way to shore up his political position. Nor do they want to play into Mr. Saleh’s penchant for keeping people off kilter.
If allowed to enter, Mr. Saleh would be the first Arab leader to request, and to be granted, an extended stay in the United States since political unrest began convulsing the region a year ago.
One administration official said that there was no further “impediment” to issuing Mr. Saleh a visa, and that he could arrive at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital as soon as the end of this week for additional treatment of medical problems stemming from a near-fatal bomb blast in June at the mosque in his presidential complex.
Though the administration had been concerned that approval would anger the many Yemenis eager to see Mr. Saleh prosecuted for the killing of protesters by his security forces, some believe that giving him a way out of Yemen, even temporarily, could help smooth the way to elections next year and perhaps end a political crisis that has brought the government of the impoverished nation to the brink of collapse.
“In the end, we felt there was enough good to be gained that it was worth managing the criticism that we’d get, including any comparisons to past episodes,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the arrangement was still being completed.
The official was referring to President Jimmy Carter’s decision in 1979 to admit the ailing shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, into the United States for medical treatment. That so infuriated the Islamic revolutionaries who had overthrown the shah that they stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage.
Antigovernment activists in Yemen said in recent days that they were worried that the United States would grant Mr. Saleh refuge and that if it did, they would demand he be returned for prosecution at home.
In a statement on Sunday in Hawaii, where President Obama is vacationing this week, the administration said that if Mr. Saleh was granted a visa, it would be only for “legitimate medical treatment.”
On Monday, the White House denied that it had made a decision on whether to grant Mr. Saleh a visa. “U.S. officials are continuing to consider President Saleh’s request to enter the country for the sole purpose of seeking medical treatment,” said the White House’s deputy press secretary, Joshua R. Earnest, “but initial reports that permission has already been granted are not true.”
Still, it appeared that the administration was also looking for a way to help calm the political chaos that has undermined efforts to prevent terrorist groups from operating in Yemen.
“The main goal is to remove him physically from Yemen so there’s no way he can meddle in the political process there,” the official said. “Getting him medical treatment seemed a logical way to do this.”
Mr. Saleh would not be allowed to bring a large entourage or use his visit for political reasons, the official said.
Mr. Saleh contacted the American Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, about the visa, officials said. His lingering injuries from the bomb blast include shrapnel wounds and extensive burns. The most serious medical condition is a balance problem caused by inner-ear damage.
A spokeswoman for NewYork-Presbyterian, Myrna Manners, said she could not confirm whether Mr. Saleh would be going there. “As of now, we are not admitting him to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital,” she said.
After Mr. Saleh’s three decades in power, doubts remain about his motives for departing now. He signed an accord a month ago in Saudi Arabia, agreeing to step down and authorizing an election in February to choose a new president. But until then, he maintains his title and much of his authority. Fears that he might find a way to hang on to power have hampered Yemen’s transition and played a role in the chronic political violence gripping the country, the poorest in the Middle East.
On Saturday, government security forces opened fire on protesters in Sana, killing at least nine people. The demonstrators were protesting a deal that would grant Mr. Saleh legal immunity if he gave up his post.
The United States has found itself in a sometimes awkward position as the unrest in the Arab world has swept through Yemen. The administration conducts extensive counterterrorism operations with the Saleh government on suspected Qaeda cells. It was unclear whether the United States was Mr. Saleh’s first choice for a destination, and as officials weighed his request, some worried that he might stop in other countries and seek support for some kind of effort to stay in power.
“They don’t want him to get back into the game,” said another official, “and everything he’s done since he went to Riyadh suggests he hasn’t entirely given up.”
Part of the problem is divining what the president is thinking. Some American officials seem persuaded by Mr. Saleh’s frequent claims that he has no desire to return to power. Others are less certain.
The two key officials involved in the decision are John O. Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, and the American ambassador in Yemen, Gerald M. Feierstein. Mr. Brennan almost certainly took the decision to Mr. Obama for final approval, an official said.
On Sunday, Mr. Brennan called Yemen’s vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, to urge the government to show restraint against protesters, Mr. Earnest said.
“Mr. Brennan emphasized strongly the need for Yemeni security forces to show maximum restraint when dealing with demonstrations, and called upon all sides to refrain from provocative acts that could spur further violence,” Mr. Earnest said.
Vice President Hadi, who is supposed to assume Mr. Saleh’s powers during the transition, told Mr. Brennan that the government would investigate the deaths and injuries, Mr. Earnest said. Shortly after the June bombing, Mr. Saleh was flown to a hospital in Saudi Arabia. But after three months, he returned to Yemen.
On Saturday, Mr. Saleh told reporters that he was leaving “not for treatment, but to get out of sight and the media, to calm the atmosphere for the unity government to hold the presidential election,” according to The Associated Press. Yet that statement seemed calculated for domestic consumption, a Yemeni official said, and Mr. Saleh added that he hoped to return to work as an “opposition figure.”
Mark Landler reported from Honolulu, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from Washington, and Anemona Hartocollis from New York.