Taiz's head of security, Brig. Gen. Abdullah Abdu Kayran, rules the south-central city in Yemen with a iron grip. His men allegedly have killed hundreds of protesters to protect the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

Everyone in this restive city knows Brig. Gen. Abdullah Abdu Kayran.

Local politicians and businessmen seek his blessings. Higher-ranking military officials speak to him with deference. And at protests, children sing songs denouncing his alleged crimes.

Kayran is neither the governor nor the leader of a powerful tribe in Taiz. Instead, he represents something more important to the regime: As Taiz’s security chief, he preserves the authority of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“The real power in Taiz is Kayran,” said Bushra al-Maktari, an activist leader. “He’s the government’s stick in Taiz. He’s a nail in Saleh’s tools of war.”

In November, Saleh signed an agreement to formally hand over power to his vice president. Yet across this impoverished Middle Eastern nation, where an al-Qaeda branch is seeking to create a haven, thousands of his loyalists remain entrenched in key government, military and security positions. Even if Saleh keeps his promise to leave office, his opponents fear that he could retain his grip on Yemen through local strongmen such as Kayran, creating a shadow regime.

“There is no doubt that they are acting in Saleh’s interests,” said Col. Abdusalam al-Jaberi, a member of a military committee assigned by the new transitional government to bring calm to Taiz.

The transitional government comprises members of both the ruling party and the opposition, and jockeying for power and positions is taking place inside national ministries, provincial governments and local councils.

In some areas, a struggle is underway to oust military and security officials loyal to Saleh, who has ruled for 33 years. Removing Kayran from this south-central city, an epicenter of Yemen’s populist uprising, has become a focal point of that effort.

On Jan. 8, local leaders in Taiz tried to fire Kayran from his position, blaming him in part for the deaths of several hundred protesters killed by his forces. But a senior Interior Ministry official dismissed the action and said Kayran was still the city’s security chief, underscoring the tensions between Saleh’s allies and his opponents. Taiz’s local council, the official said, had no authority to oust Kayran.

If Saleh allies such as Kayran remain in place at the provincial and local levels, any new government would amount to an extension of Saleh’s 33-year rule. That could lead to more tensions and crackdowns on activists who are calling for the prosecution of Saleh and his sons and nephews for crimes against humanity. It would also complicate the ability of Yemen’s next president — if elections take place next month, as scheduled — to steer the country through a transitional process that many hope would herald the start of significant change in Yemen.

Already, lawlessness is growing. On Sunday, al-Qaeda-linked militants reportedly seized the town of Radda, 105 miles southeast of the capital, Sanaa, expanding their control of areas into a third province. And on the same day, armed tribesmen kidnapped a Norwegian U.N. worker in Sanaa.

‘This man is a criminal’

The quest to remove Kayran comes as Saleh is strongly signaling that he plans to play an influential role in Yemen’s future, even if he leaves his post. Although he handed over some of his duties to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Saleh retains much authority. And his sons and nephews still control the security forces.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the United States “regrets” that Saleh has not complied with his pledge to leave the country and allow elections to proceed.

Saleh recently reversed a decision to travel to the United States for medical treatment, in part to address what ruling-party officials described as an opposition ploy to oust some of his loyalists from key positions. According to Yemen’s deputy information minister, Abdu al-Janadi, Saleh also plans to “lead” Hadi’s presidential campaign. Elections are scheduled for next month, but the Associated Press reported Tuesday that top officials have said the vote could be delayed.

This month, the cabinet approved a law granting Saleh and his family, along with anyone who worked under him in a civilian, military or security capacity, immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed under his rule. This occurred despite daily protests across the country demanding that Saleh face trial for the deaths of hundreds of protesters since the revolt began in late January 2011.

If Yemen’s parliament approves the legislation, Kayran could be granted immunity, a development that would almost certainly raise tensions in Taiz. Activists and tribal leaders aligned with the opposition allege that Kayran has ordered his forces to shell the city and has deployed snipers to kill or wound hundreds of protesters in an effort to break the revolution.

“This man is a criminal, a killer of women and children. Every few days, he kills calmly in cold blood,” said Sultan al-Samei, a tribal leader whose men are protecting the protesters and fighting the government.

In an extensive interview last month, Kayran denied such allegations. He dismissed reports by Human Rights Watch and other watchdog groups documenting killings of unarmed protesters by his units. He blamed the bloodshed on the opposition, particularly extremist elements of Islah, Yemen’s powerful Islamist party.

“They are trying to make the international community turn against the state, and they are using violence to achieve that,” he said. “They want to grab all the power.”

Elite roots

Slim with gray-speckled hair, a trim mustache and an erect gait, the 47-year-old Kayran was born into a wealthy family. He entered the police academy in Sanaa in 1983 and quickly rose through the ranks, receiving training in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Britain. For a decade, he served as a lecturer at the academy, Kayran said.

In 1999, he became head of security for the free-trade zone in the southern port city of Aden. A year later, he said, he met Saleh for the first time and made a strong impression. In 2004, he became security chief for all of Aden. There, he built a reputation for cracking down on secessionists who opposed Saleh’s regime.

Kayran denied those allegations as well and said he had filed lawsuits against several opposition newspapers that characterized him as a murderer. “I believe in law and order,” he said.

Last year, as the populist revolt gained force, Kayran was transferred to Taiz to quell the rebellion. Shortly after, violence there escalated, turning many parts of the city into war zones. He is widely thought to be receiving direct orders from Saleh and his sons and nephews.

Kayran’s supporters, however, describe him as a person who works for the country — not Saleh. They say he is only following orders and is a victim of the uprising.

“He is open-minded. He is loyal to the system,” said Moammar Aldram, an engineer who visited Kayran in his office last month. “The political crisis has messed his reputation up.”

Special correspondent Ali Almujahed in Sanaa contributed to this report.