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.
The government has denied foreign journalists access to the north since the war began and last month also barred local journalists. Authorities called in Yemeni correspondents for foreign news organizations, telling them there was no need for the world to know of Yemen's problems in the northern city of Saada, local journalists said.
Prosecutors brought sedition charges, with execution as possible punishment, against an editor who had published photographs of devastated northern villages.
"To even speak of going to Saada is to get a death sentence," said the editor, Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani. He awaits sentencing on Monday.
Major international rights groups largely bypass Yemen, leaving unexamined and unamplified allegations that government tanks, warplanes and artillery routinely bombard northern Shiite villages. Smuggled videos show that some villages around Saada have been gutted and largely emptied of all but Shiite fighters.
"If a cat dies in Lebanon, the world knows about it," said Muhatwari, who said his school and mosque in the capital have been shuttered by the government. "Here in Yemen, we are forgotten."
In 2004, a son of a leading Hashemite family launched what became the rebellion. Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, head of a Shiite religious movement known as the Believing Youth, adopted a slogan sure to attract support from Yemen's public and irritate Saleh's U.S.-backed government: "God is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Cursed be the Jews. Victory is Islam's."
Government officials sent troops and tribal fighters to crush the upstart.
Eighty-two days of fighting later, Houthi, badly wounded and burned, emerged from a cave where government-allied forces had cornered him with family and followers. Accounts of his subsequent death vary widely. His family and supporters say a government officer shot him dead after he came forward under a truce to negotiate.
In 2005, villager Yaya Ismail al-Muktafi watched a government helicopter circle a Shiite village near Saada, he recalled last week in Sanaa.
Muktafi, a lawyer, said he saw the helicopter sweep down and flames shoot out of its two rocket launchers. "I listened to the echo of the explosions off the mountains," Muktafi said. "And then it came to my village."
The next year, a mortar round leveled Muktafi's house, killing his mother and an 8-year-old niece. Muktafi now lives in the capital, with a 3-year-old daughter lamed by the mortar round.
Once a month or so, family members remaining in the north hike to one of the few spots that still has cellphone reception to call him. "It's just, 'We're OK! We're alive!' and that's it," Muktafi said, miming holding a phone to his turbaned head, a metal tooth gleaming.
"There's no confidence now," said Abdul Rahim Kassim al-Humrad, Houthi's brother-in-law. "They don't leave us any options anymore. As long as we're going to be killed, we might as well be killed in the mountains."
Hussein's brother Abdul Malik al-Houthi succeeded him as rebel commander. He allows only old photographs of himself to be circulated and limits television interviews to audio.
A video seen by The Washington Post, and confirmed by officials, shows the rebel commander sitting cross-legged on the dirt in talks with Yemeni officials, a few miles from the Saudi border. Teenage bodyguards in green uniforms stand behind him.
Abdul Houthi's dark hair is combed flat to the side, and he wears a dark suit with a dark open-neck shirt and no tie, in the fashion adopted by many Iranian men. The bulge in his cheek, from khat, the leaves that Yemenis chew as a mild stimulant, is the only sign that Houthi is Yemeni instead of Iranian.
"From the beginning, they started to look for support from Iran," said Yasser Ahmed bin Salim al-Awadi, vice chairman of the governing party's bloc in parliament. "The least they are trying for is to become like Hezbollah."
Saudi Arabia is pushing hard on Yemen to crack down on the rebels, for fear rebellion will cross the border into the Shiite communities of the southern Saudi oil fields, Awadi said.
"I think Saudi Arabia cares more about this war than Yemen does," Awadi said.
Al-Qaeda members in Yemen's mosques advocate fighting the Shiite rebels, Awadi said. Sunni veterans of Afghanistan are among the volunteers joining the fight, he added.
Saudi Arabia's cabinet urged Yemen last month to end the rebellion quickly and peacefully. But Saudi and Iranian officials deny interference in Yemen's Shiite rebellion. A Western diplomat in Sanaa said he suspects any support from Iran and Saudi Arabia comes mainly as cash.
On May 2, a bombing killed 15 people at a Saada mosque where a Yemeni military commander allegedly had recruited Sunni extremists for the fight against the Shiites. It ended a cease-fire brokered by Qatar.
"I believe they mean to wipe us all out," Amat-Allah Asharii, a Hashemite woman in her 70s, said in the capital. Asharii had lost three homes and countless relatives and neighbors in the fighting, she said. Coming to the capital last month, she passed what she said were hundreds of tanks, trucks and rocket batteries heading north for the current offensive.
Hashemite men picketed parliament last weekend to urge a return to peace talks. A Yemeni military officer in green camouflage shouted in their faces. "This is the end of the end!" he screamed.
Reports from the north this week showed fighting continuing. For now, Awadi said, peace talks will wait. "In reality, it is war now."