(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are trying to broker a deal to have Yemen's president step down and hand over power, possibly to an interim council of tribal and political leaders, sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
Ali Abdullah's Saleh's at times bloody response to protests, inspired by those in Egypt and Tunisia, against his 32-year rule has tried the patience of his U.S. and Saudi backers.
Yemen-based al Qaeda in the hope of staving off a chaotic collapse of the poorest Arab state.
Though diplomats familiar with the negotiations question whether a deal is anywhere close to being struck, the proposal by the Gulf Arabs involves Saleh finally agreeing to stand down and handing his powers for a short time to a national council.
"The proposal is to have a governing council grouping all the various political parties and tribes for a period that would not exceed three months," one Gulf official told Reuters on Wednesday of a plan to be presented to Saleh and his opponents at talks to take place soon in Saudi Arabia. A date is not set.
"The council will set the way for elections," the Gulf official added, echoing other sources in the region and beyond.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which groups Saudi Arabia with its small neighbors Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, made the invitations on Monday.
Saleh told GCC envoys on Tuesday that he would come to the talks in Riyadh. The ambassadors were waiting for a response from opposition leaders who they met in Yemen on Wednesday.
More than 100 people have been killed since protests began in Yemen in February. The deaths of 52 protesters on March 18, apparently at the hands of gunmen supporting Saleh, have been a turning point in the conflict, turning allies both within Yemen and abroad against the veteran head of state.
"The talks in Saudi Arabia will discuss the modalities and mechanism for transition of power," another source close to the discussions told Reuters. "There are some names being circulated to head a transitional council."
These included Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, a leading figure among Yemen's powerful tribes, Abdulkarim al-Iryani, a U.S.-educated former prime minister and currently an adviser to Saleh, and another former premier Abdulaziz Abdul-Ghani.
It is not clear whether any of these could win a consensus among the opposition, which includes the Islamist Islah party, socialists, Arab nationalists and others. Nor is it clear they would be acceptable to Saleh, who wants a say in the matter.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer and key ally and funder of Saleh, fears that its neighbor could fragment along tribal or regional lines if a way is not found out of the crisis soon -- something Saleh has warned of in recent speeches.
Washington has long seen Saleh as a pivotal ally in its fight against al Qaeda, which has used its Yemen base to stage attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United States. In return for billions of dollars in military aid, Saleh has pledged to fight militants and allowed unpopular U.S. air strikes on their camps.