Yemen's fight with rebels a regional concern
Sunni-Shiite tensions grow as Saudis allege Iran's involvement

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.

The rebels accuse the government of trying to dilute their religion by installing Sunni fundamentalists in mosques and official positions in some Zaydi areas. The government maintains that Hawthis seek to bring back the Zaydi imamate.

The conflict began in 2004 with a few hundred rebel fighters. It has grown into a full-fledged insurgency that Yemen's undisciplined military has struggled to contain, despite its deployment of military units and resources to the north. Last year, the fighting reached the outskirts of Sanaa, the capital.

In the town of Mazraq on Thursday, the market was crowded with disheveled Yemeni soldiers in ragtag uniforms. Many carried aging Kalashnikov rifles and rode in the back of pickup trucks, chewing khat, a mildly narcotic leaf popular in Yemen.

Yemeni officials expressed confidence that they could crush the rebellion, now that the Saudis were pushing from the north. The kingdom is deeply concerned about having a hostile Shiite region on its southern border.

The rebels say they staged the border attack, which killed a Saudi soldier, because of Saudi support for Yemen. Hawthi rebel commanders have denied Iran is supporting them. Iran, too, has denied arming or financing the rebels. Yemen and Saudi Arabia have not provided credible evidence of Iranian support, Western diplomats and analysts say.

Still, Saudi Arabia's entry into the conflict has touched a nerve with Iran. This week, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, declared that no nation should "interfere" in Yemen's internal affairs, a veiled snipe at Saudi Arabia. Some analysts say if Saudi Arabia continues to attack the rebels, Iran might decide to back the Hawthis, if it hasn't already, as a way to gain leverage over Riyadh.

"Iran believes the biggest obstacle to its growing influence in the region is Saudi Arabia," said Najib Ghallab, a political researcher at Sanaa University. "To weaken Saudi influence, Iran believes Yemen is the starting point."

Sectarian differences

Many Yemenis say al-Qaeda is already taking advantage of the government's focus on the north. An al-Qaeda ambush this month in the east that killed five security officials raised questions over whether the thinly stretched government can control the entire country. "In this environment, security is weak and the government is busy with wars. This is the environment al-Qaeda wants."

Some officials allege that the Hawthis are allied with the Sunni militants of al-Qaeda, but they provide no evidence. Most analysts view it as an attempt by a weak government to generate support from the United States and other Western powers that fear Yemen is descending into chaos. The Hawthis have long been deeply antagonistic toward hard-line Sunni fundamentalists, making any alliance with al-Qaeda unlikely.

Critics of the government declare that the war can be ended quickly through negotiations. They accuse Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, of engaging in war to bolster his military authority, weaken political rivals and milk more economic and military aid from Western powers.

Awadi dismissed such suggestions. "It's not in the government's interest to make war in the hope it will bring more instability."

As the conflict rages, sectarian and tribal animosities are deepening. In the camp, some refugees said Hawthis had forced Sunnis from their villages.

"They were the first to be exposed to any dangers," Ahmed Garela Al-Balawi, 43, a Zaydi Shiite who fled Haidan, a Hawthi stronghold, said last week.

In Sanaa, government forces have detained Shiites thought to support the Hawthis, human rights activists say. Shiites have been banned from sensitive jobs and were ordered to hand in weapons, said Hassan Zaid, the Shiite leader of the al-Haq party, which supported the Hawthis. His party has since been dissolved.

Awadi doesn't dispute taking action against Hawthi supporters, but he said there were no sectarian motives.

Outside the camp, Ahmed Davish, 37, shooed away flies buzzing around his face. He and his family had arrived five days earlier -- also forced from Saudi Arabia.

In the previous years of war, Davish, who is Sunni, returned to his village of Raza to live side by side again with Shiites. This time, "it's very difficult to return," he said. "You should be a Hawthi, or you will be killed."

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