Middle East


On the Brink of Sectarian War

Yemeni soldiers patrolling in Saada, 150 miles north of the capital, Sana'a. A Yemeni Member of Parliament accused of being a leader of a deadly three-year uprising by the Zaidi minority in the northern mountains warned in remarks published on Feb. 25 that rebels might widen their campaign. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

He heard the military helicopters coming, Dr. Ali al-Wadiee told WorldPress, in Al-Ruzamat — a small village situated amid the volcanic mountains of Yemen's remote north, near the border with Saudi Arabia.

"There were several loud explosions," he said, but the doctor wasn't aware of how many helicopters dropped their payloads in Al-Naqa'ah on the Yemeni side of the border.

In the Saada province, 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of the capital Sana'a, nearly 700 people have been killed as fighting reignited in late January between Yemen's army and Zaidi Shiite insurgents — formed by now-deceased tribal chief Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi — Al Shabab Al Moumin (the Youthful Believers), after the rebels threatened to kill members of a small Jewish community in Saada if they did not leave the country within 10 days.

Al-Wadiee was present in a small government medical center with four health workers, when more than 100 dead were received in a period of three days.

"About 90 of the dead were in the Yemeni army, and the others were in the Shiite insurgents," he said.

At the outskirts of Al-Ruzamat, more than six miles (10 kilometers) south of Al-Naqa'ah, a metal sign hanging from a shiny new chain reads: "Warning… Access to this area is forbidden for security reasons. The Yemeni Army."

The current conflict represents the third government crackdown since 2004 in the Saada province, where the anti-government Shiite rebel movement started out as a small domestic protest against Yemeni policy. Rebel clerics have denounced the government's ties with the United States and demanded an end to its gradual shift to Western-style social and democratic reforms.

While government military forces seem to have emerged victorious from the latest fighting — they recently crushed the main rebel strongholds in the Razih and Al-Shagaf areas of Al-Naqa'ah — Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the new leader of this Shiite insurgency threatens to widen the circle of armed confrontations to areas outside of Saada.

Al-Houthi said in his threats that his group — hundreds of armed rebels remain unaccounted for — will continue fighting the government if it doesn't cut its alliances with America and Israel.

The government has received strong United States military support to curb terrorism in the region. The Al-Thawra government-funded newspaper in Sana'a reported on Sept. 26, 2006 that United States Ambassador Thomas C. Krajeski declared Washington's support for the Yemeni government in its confrontation with Al-Houthi's insurgency.

The Hezbollah-style rebel group was formed three years ago by Shiite cleric Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who was killed in September 2004, fighting under a strong sectarian slogan: "God the Greatest... Death to America and Israel...Victory for Islam and Muslims."

The government is determined to crush the uprising. But many observers worry that it may not be able to wholly overcome al-Houthi's group, which aims to install an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy.

"They refused all offers by the government to disarm and form a political party to live in peace," said Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor at Sana'a University. "I think the rebels have this time lost all grounds for negotiations with the government."

To isolate the rebels, explained al-Faqih, Yemeni authorities have blocked communications including mobile phone services in the restive northern province. "But this has not necessarily helped the government as much as it is impossible for the rebels to overthrow the government and install their Islamic law," he said.

Observers are also concerned that hundreds of anti-Western insurgents, crushed in their tribal heartlands, could strike out at foreigners and Western interests in the country. Earlier this month the Interior Ministry temporarily tightened security around foreign embassies against possible terrorist attacks.

"Here in Yemen, tribe, religion and weapons are the most dangerous things in the hands of tribesmen against the government," said Abdul-Elah Haidar, a researcher on terrorism affairs at the Saba News Agency and regular columnist for the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi. "And when a group combines the three, it can easily become a substantial political force."

This escalation of violence has been a frightening setback for the Yemeni government, which had rigidly controlled the threats from al Qaeda and was beginning to benefit from the cautious return of tourists and foreign investors.

Lacking large oil reserves or any modern manufacturing facilities, Yemen is particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The latest bombing attacks that targeted American- and Canadian-owned oil facilities in the eastern provinces of Marib and Hadarmout on Sept. 15, 2006; the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden; and the October 2002 bombing of the French supertanker, Limberg, have cost the government millions as insurance premiums for ship owners have soared, causing many of them refuse to dock at Yemen's ports.

This guerrilla-style of war and terrorist attacks has frightened off thousands of mainly European tourists who come to admire the country's unique ancient mud-brick cities and amazing landscape.

Most Yemenis believe that Iran backs the Shiite Muslim rebels in the north of the Sunni-dominated country, pointing out that the minority Zaidi sect makes up about a fifth of the Yemen's population.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in January that some countries were supplying al-Houthi's group with weapons and financial support, but did not name them.

Tariq al-Shami, spokesman for President Saleh's ruling party, the General People's Congress (G.P.C.), said Iranian security officials had told Yemen that some Iranian religious institutions were supporting the rebels, but they added that al-Houthi's group was not backed by Tehran.

"There are Iranian religious institutions which are providing support to the Shiite insurgency in Yemen," Shami recently posited on the G.P.C.'s Web site.

In March 2006, Yemen freed more than 600 Shiite rebels as part of an amnesty to end two years of clashes that had killed several hundred soldiers and rebels.

But, "the Houthis have used a period of truce with the state to buy heavy weapons using foreign support money," Shami said.

The clashes in Saada are causing negative consequences at the national level. "Many houses have already been destroyed, students no longer go to school, agricultural farms have been damaged and work has come to a standstill," said Khalid al-Anesi, who runs a non-governmental organization (N.G.O.) for defending rights and freedoms.

Military sources say that al-Houthi's three-year fight against the government has cost the country an estimated 800 million dollars, with extensive damage to property.

The Yemeni government, however, faces other unresolved problems in that many extreme religious groups refuse to operate within a democratic system that they see as invalid, explained Mr. Haidar: "Al-Houthi's group was trying to copy Iraq's sectarian strife in Yemen."

Sunni Muslims are a majority in Yemen, a nation of 19 million. It is the ancestral homeland of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. However, al-Houthi and his supporters are not linked to al Qaeda.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Mohamed Al-Azaki.