Middle East

The Spreading Destruction of the Saada War in Yemen

Yeminis protest in front of the parliament building in Sanaa on June 1, 2008, calling for an end to the "war in Saada province." (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

The boundaries of the war in Yemen are expanding beyond the northern Saada governorate. Bombing is audible from the nation's capital for the first time. Recent battles are among the bloodiest in memory.

After four years of armed conflict between the government and a group of Zaydi rebels, the war's impact has spread far beyond the combatants and the field of combat. Military, judicial, and civil policies targeting the rebels have precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Saada and a civil crisis in the nation with rights groups protesting mass arrests and other tactics.

Opposition party leaders in Saada condemned the unannounced military bombing of Dhahian City in July, calling the tactic "an unprecedented crime." In May, rebel spokesman Sheik Saleh Habrah said government shelling in Dhahian, Al-Mahader, and Al-Ghabair killed 30 civilians and wounded scores. Over 85,000 Saada residents fled indiscriminate government bombing and are internal refugees. Malnutrition is widespread among the 750,000 Saada residents after a long-standing government blockade.

Casualties in the last month number in the hundreds. Aerial bombardment in Saada and Amran was accompanied by direct engagement of forces. The Yemeni military is deploying helicopters, tanks, Hawn mortars, and Katushkya rockets to target the Zaydi rebels who are themselves well armed and who often mingle among the civilian population.

Thousands have died since the fighting began in 2004, when security forces clashed with a small group of students protesting the Iraq war. The group was led by Zaydi cleric and member of parliament Hussain al-Houthi, who was later killed by regime forces in what some claim was an ambush during a mediation session.

The ranks of both the military and the rebel forces have swelled since the war began. The Houthi rebels have grown from 400 fighters to several thousand today. Many of the newest rebel recruits are not ideologically affiliated with the Houthist movement but motivated by antigovernment sentiments and, in some cases, by financial reward. Many joined the rebellion in response to the bombardment of the governorate and a campaign of arbitrary arrests. Security forces also arrested dozens of soldiers who defected to the Houthis. Foreigners fighting on the rebel side purportedly include Somalis, who joined for a $100 fee.

The Yemeni military inducted Salafist tribal fighters and jihadists into its campaign against the rebels. The paramilitary is led by Sheik Abdulmajid al-Zindani and Tariq al-Fadhili. Both men had personal relationships with Osama bin Laden in years past. Al-Zindani is classified as a terrorist financier by the United States Treasury Department. Between 5,000 and 10,000 of these fighters are deployed by the state, some quite young and often without adequate military training.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced this week that the government is raising a "citizens' army" of about 10,000 fighters. The recruitment drive is predominantly among Saleh's Hashid tribesman and runs the risk of sparking an all out tribal war or a cycle of tribal revenge killings. The risks of creating another armed militia include the possibility that it may eventually compete with the state.

Three peace agreements have collapsed since 2005 in part because the central government is not fully in control of state apparatuses. The July 2007 Qatar-sponsored agreement unraveled in January when the Yemeni military failed to vacate rebel homes and farms and the rebels refused to descend from the mountains. In Yemen, some military and security units function as personal armies for various commanders, many of which are direct relatives of President Saleh.

Military strategy has been sometimes uncoordinated and counterproductive. Dozens of government forces were killed in Miran when a three-day military bombing campaign repetitively targeted areas of close engagement. When rebels cut the supply routes to the 17th Military Division, stationed in Miran, no action was taken to resupply the troops for 44 days. Nearing starvation, soldiers began calling local media organizations demanding reinforcements and food.

In June, the war spread beyond Saada when 400 rebels took refuge in Bani Hushaish, a city of 75,000, 12 miles outside the capital. The government shelled the city for several weeks and instituted a blockade. Hundreds of families fled the city with nowhere to go.

The Yemeni food blockade policy began in 2004 and is intended to coerce the civilian population. One Yemeni official said, "When [the residents] begin to starve and their source of income is interrupted, they will eventually hand over the Houthis in their area." Although officials made several announcements that Bani Hushaish has been cleared of "terrorist" elements, the sounds of shelling can be heard from the capital and the blockade remains in place.

The rebel force claims it is "completely opposed to attacks on civilians" and restricts itself to engaging military targets. However, in July a teenager detonated an explosive device at the entrance to a government complex in Saada City, killing five. In the Saqeen district, a rebel sniper killed Col. Mohsen Tabaza, the deputy commander of the First Infantry. Mohammed Al-Fadhli, head of the 10th Military Division's training unit, was killed by a sniper in Al-Sama while surveying the area prior to a planned attack.

The United States affirmed recently that it does not classify the rebels as terrorists. At the same time, the United States repeatedly expressed concern for the humanitarian toll of the fighting and urged both sides to allow urgently needed supplies of food, fuel, and other necessities into the region.

The European Union allocated 1 million euros to aid civilians displaced by the fighting. It is unclear when or how aid will reach the needy as humanitarian groups are barred from most of the region by security concerns. The aid group Doctors Without Borders was forced in June to suspend operations and abandon hospitals due to the numerous clashes involving heavy weaponry. The group expressed a high level of concern for the complete lack of medical care for civilians injured in the shelling and those displaced by the fighting. The International Committee of the Red Cross, noting the scarcity of clean water and food, also called for both sides to facilitate humanitarian aid shipments.

On a civil level, the number of "preventive arrests" is thought to be in the thousands and includes children as young as 10 who report being beaten by soldiers while in prison. Several civil society organizations protested on Sunday in Yemen against the policy of arbitrary arrests. The National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms recently said, "This campaign of random arrests that mainly targets the Zaydi sect affiliates, clerics, students, and rights activists will deepen the danger against social peace."

The organization also noted the kidnapping of Khalid Alsharif, a Yemeni-American citizen, as part of "a vast campaign that is against Hashimi people and Zaidies." Other elements of civil targeting include use of the official media to label rebels and sympathizers as "Satanic" and publicize Fatwas issued against them, incitement from mosques, the destruction of religious books, and the banning of a mainstream Zaydi holiday, al-Ghadir day. Zaydis make up about 30 percent of the Yemeni population.

Another prong of the civil campaign associated with the Saada war is censorship of the media. Local and foreign journalists have been excluded from the region since 2004. Several Yemeni reporters have faced judicial consequences for writing about the Saada war, most notably Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, who was sentenced in June to six years in jail in a verdict that was widely condemned as politicized. A similar clampdown on the Internet means many Yemeni news Web sites are inaccessible within Yemen and the public must rely on government sources alone for information.

President Saleh recently restated his accusation that the rebels are funded by Iran, Libya, and "the centers of 12er Shia faith" in an effort to restore a Zaydi theocracy in Yemen. However, the rebellion sprung from and is mired in domestic politics and grievances. The rebels evoke their own external bogeyman, Saudi Arabia, which they claim is supporting the assault on Saada. Added to the mix are the many Iraqi army officers who have entered Yemeni military service since the fall of Saddam. The rebels claim that the officers are instigating genocide against Saada residents.

The rebels' goals are unclear. While they oppose Yemen's alliance with the United States and chant "Death to America," they have not joined with insurgent forces in Iraq or targeted American interests in Yemen. They claim that President Saleh has been "trying to implant by force the Wahabbi school of thought in Zaidi areas" and that they are fighting a defensive war against dictatorship not republicanism. Along with these claims comes a demand for substantial autonomy in the governorate.

From The Long War Journal.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.