In Yemen, a Mostly Concealed Sectarian Fight Endures

A man, right, passes tribesmen in the town of Kohal, Yemen, his clothes stained by blood after a gunman opened fire in a mosque, killing at least eight people May 30.
A man, right, passes tribesmen in the town of Kohal, Yemen, his clothes stained by blood after a gunman opened fire in a mosque, killing at least eight people May 30. (By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 7, 2008

SANAA, Yemen -- The boom of explosions swept across the high-walled compounds and minarets of this ancient Arab capital before dawn one day last week, as Shiite rebels battled for control of a mountain overlooking the city and its airport.

Government warplanes backed by artillery rebuffed the rebels, the latest skirmish in a largely hidden sectarian conflict that has drawn increasing attention from Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, Shiite Iran and Sunni extremists eager for a fight.

"I believe this war is a proxy war," Yemeni lawmaker Ahmed Saif Hashed said in Sanaa, where civilians of the same Shiite sect as the rebels say they are facing increasing detentions, beatings and surveillance.

The rebellion is being mounted by Yemen's Hashemite Shiites, who ruled the country for more than a 1,000 years until an alliance of Shiite and Sunni military officers deposed them in 1962. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, belongs to the country's larger Shiite community, known as the Zaidis.

Giving the conflict a sectarian cast, his forces have been joined by Sunni tribesmen and extremists in battling the Hashemite rebels, whom the government says are supported by Iran. The rebels say they want only their share of development, resources and power.

"I think there is kind of a settling of accounts here against Iran," Hashed said.

This week, 22 clerics in Saudi Arabia published a statement equating the Hashemite rebels with the Shiite movement Hezbollah in Lebanon. "If they have a country, they humiliate and exert control in their rule over Sunnis," the clerics said, citing Iran and Iraq. "They sow strife, corruption and destruction among Muslims and destabilize security in Muslim countries . . . such as Yemen."

Last year, Yemen's defense minister published what was widely interpreted as a fatwa, or binding religious decree, sanctioning Sunnis to use force against the northern Shiite rebels. The largely impoverished nation of 23 million is majority Sunni.

"At first, yes, maybe the people looked to us as their natural leaders," said al-Mourtada al-Muhatwari, a Hashemite scholar in the capital who demonstrated how followers used to kneel before his father. "Now, we are trying only to survive."

It remains unclear how many have died in fighting since Shiite rebels rose up in the jagged massifs of northern Yemen, bordering Saudi Arabia, in 2004.

In 2005, believing it had ended the rebellion, Yemen's government announced that fighting had killed 2,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians. Despite several eruptions of violence since then, the government has released no new casualty totals.

The government has made it difficult for independent observers to make their own assessment of the strife or aid its victims. Authorities have cut off most cellphone networks that reach the north. Government checkpoints and rebel ambushes have blocked the road to the north for most of the past month. Aid shipments to the estimated 100,000 people displaced -- at least one in every seven people in the thinly populated mountains -- have been interrupted since fighting resumed in early May.


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