Yemen's fight with rebels a regional concern

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 14, 2009

MAZRAQ, YEMEN -- Along the jagged, oatmeal-colored mountains of northern Yemen, civil war has transformed the windswept landscape into a canvas of human misery, bolstering al-Qaeda's efforts to create a haven in the Middle East's poorest nation.

It is a war largely hidden from the rest of the world the past five years, and it pits the Hawthi rebels, who are Shiites, against Yemen's government. In recent days, however, it has also drawn in Saudi Arabia. Yemen and Saudi Arabia, both ruled by Sunnis, accuse Shiite Iran of backing the rebels, raising the specter of a proxy war that could elevate sectarian tensions in this oil-rich region.

The fighting could have serious implications for the U.S. anti-terrorism effort in a failing nation where al-Qaeda is gaining strength, Western diplomats and Yemeni analysts say. The war is drawing attention and scarce resources away from efforts to combat poverty, a secessionist movement in the south and piracy along the nation's shores. A prolonged conflict, they say, could further weaken Yemen's government and deepen societal fissures, allowing al-Qaeda militants to thrive.

"The longer the war in the north continues and the longer the problems in the south continue without resolution, the more we pave the road for al-Qaeda," said Yahya Abu Asbu, a Foreign Ministry official and deputy secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party. "Yemen will become more dangerous than Somalia."

Ruling party officials concede that the war is siphoning resources from other pressing problems, but they say their priority is to crush the rebellion.

"You cannot say the Hawthis are less dangerous than al-Qaeda," said Yasser Ahmed Bin Salim al-Awadi, who heads the government's ruling bloc in parliament. "Al-Qaeda is not doing something like what the Hawthis are doing now."

The war has forced more than 175,000 Yemenis to flee their homes; many more remain trapped in areas gripped by violence.

Ali Abdu and his family are among the war's newest victims.

They escaped to Saudi Arabia two months ago. But last week, the Hawthi rebels crossed into Saudi Arabia and attacked a Saudi patrol. The kingdom retaliated by bombing rebel positions in Yemen, but also forced Abdu and hundreds of other desperate refugees back across the border.

Evading bombs and bullets, the family reached Mazraq, a crowded refugee camp less than five miles from the front lines.

"It is our destiny," said Abdu, 45, with no hint of emotion. He paused, then added: "Only Allah knows why they are fighting."

The clans

The Hawthis, who believe in the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, ruled northern Yemen as a religious imamate for nearly a millennium before being overthrown in a 1962 coup. Ever since, Yemen's rulers have been wary of them and other Zaydi clans. The Zaydis make up more than a quarter of Yemen's population and constitute a majority in the north.

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