In this rugged northern valley ringed by pink-hued mountains, a conflict between Yemeni factions is siphoning away resources from a more significant war against al-Qaeda-linked militants in the country’s restive south.
And Hakma Abdallah and her 10 children are among its numerous victims. Home is a dark cave in the craggy hillside rising above their village. They sleep on dusty blankets on the hard earth, sharing the meager space with two other families. The houses below have been shattered by artillery and mortars, testament to the fierce battles that have erupted here.
“The children are too afraid to sleep in our house,” said Abdallah, whose home was badly damaged. “The shelling can start at any moment.”
Even as the Obama administration steps up efforts to weaken al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, this Middle Eastern nation’s new U.S-backed president is facing a struggle for his own future. The contest for influence is playing out between loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his longtime opponents, most prominently in the capital, Sanaa, and in Arhab, on its outskirts.
That is testing the authority of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was vice president under Saleh, and his ability to usher Yemen into a new era after 33 years of authoritarian rule. For now, Hadi’s biggest challenge is reforming Yemen’s fractured armed forces. But while he has had some successes, the military remains divided, beholden more to commanders who are pro- or anti-Saleh than to Hadi, who assumed office in February.
What’s unfolding in Arhab, about 15 miles north of the capital, is an extension of a year-long military standoff, fueled by the fissures in the armed forces, that has divided Sanaa and paralyzed governance.
The conflict is strictly about power, but its impact is being felt in the fight against al-Qaeda, said Yemeni officials, tribal leaders and analysts. The bulk of the country’s veteran forces, including many U.S.-trained counterterrorism troops, have been deployed in the capital and in Arhab, to preserve the political clout of their leaders, rather than in the south, to battle the militants.
Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch has repeatedly targeted the United States; in the latest attempt, Saudi operatives last month foiled a plot to bomb a U.S.-bound jet. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has escalated its campaign of drone strikes and sent small batches of military trainers and advisers to assist Yemen’s military, including some who arrived this month.
But the ground war, although it has intensified in recent days, has been unable to break the Islamists, who have gained more territory and resolve over the past year.
“The tensions around Sanaa have taken resources from the war against the terrorists in the south,” said Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a well-known political analyst.
On one side of Arhab’s conflict are tribesmen linked to al-Islah, the country’s most powerful Islamist party, and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a renegade general. On the other side are Republican Guard troops led by Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed Ali Saleh.
“They are pawns in the competition between the two factions of the regime,” Iryani said.
Arhab is strategically important because it is near the capital’s international airport and houses the most significant Republican Guard bases in the region. It is also the ancestral home of Abdul Majid al-Zindani, an influential cleric whom the United States has branded a terrorist on suspicion of links to al-Qaeda.
The conflict in Arhab began in the summer, after Mohsen and his 1st Armored Brigade joined Yemen’s pro-democracy uprising, and after government troops killed dozens of protesters in Sanaa and in the south-central city of Taiz. Zindani, who like Mohsen is a senior al-Islah leader, also sided with the protesters.
The tribesmen of Arhab also backed the protesters, rising up to prevent Republican Guard forces from entering the capital and quashing the revolution. The tribesmen launched attacks on the elite unit’s mountain bases, firing rockets and mortar rounds. The Republican Guard responded by pounding the valley with shells and aerial strikes. Thousands fled their homes, many seeking shelter in the caves, with no water, no electricity and little food.
The fighting raged on even after a power-transfer deal — brokered by Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors and the United States — paved the way for Saleh to step down in November.
Hadi, who was Saleh’s handpicked successor, has surprised his critics by ousting Saleh’s half brother and nephew from key positions in the military. However, he has not tried to dismiss Ahmed Ali Saleh or his other cousins, who command powerful sections of the military.
For the tribesmen in Arhab, the Republican Guard is the most visible symbol of the old order. Around the valley, people refer to the forces as “the Family Guards.”
“The country cannot be safe and stable until Ahmed Ali and other family members step down from their positions,” said Mansour Ali al-Haniq, the tribal leader who commands the fight in Arhab. “They do not follow the orders of the Defense Ministry or the president. They follow the orders of Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
Haniq, a member of parliament from al-Islah, spoke inside his mansion in Sanaa, protected by Mohsen’s soldiers. They seek, he said, the removal of Republican Guard troops from their bases and compensation for the families that lost relatives and property.
At the main military base in Arhab, battered by heavy artillery and mortars, Republican Guard commanders said they were protecting the country from the Islamist party, which, they charged, supports al-Qaeda. The al-
Islah-linked tribesmen, they said, want to gain territory and influence.
“They want to take over the airport and destroy the capital,” said Col. Ahmed Hamoud Jabbar, who heads the base.
At some Republican Guard checkpoints in Arhab, the flag of Saleh’s political party flies. Guard tanks remain positioned outside hostile villages.
“Nothing will change unless the army is unified, reformed and brought under the political leadership,” said Shehab Abu Ghanim, 32, a merchant.
That would most probably require both Mohsen and Ahmed Ali and his cousins to step down. Their forces, along with tribesmen of Yemen’s most influential family, the Ahmars (no relation to Mohsen), have divided up the capital and its outskirts. Analysts say undoing this fragile balance of power too quickly could generate more violence and political tensions, further eroding Hadi’s authority.
As they help maintain relative calm, many of Yemen’s elite forces are not being deployed to fight militants. Underscoring the significance of the capital and Arhab to their political survival, Mohsen — whose al-Islah party is part of Hadi’s coalition government — and Ahmed Ali have each sent only one company of troops to the south, said a senior Yemeni official close to Hadi who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Mohsen’s troops, in particular, have abundant experience against insurrections, having fought six civil wars against Shiite Houthi rebels in the north.
“Al-Qaeda will get stronger if this situation continues in the capital,” said Sultan al-Barakani, a top ruling-party official.
Even if the military is unified, the psychological trauma will probably linger in Arhab. Scores of pregnant women have suffered miscarriages as a result of the shelling, residents said. Water pumps have been destroyed, as was the only medical clinic in the area.
Twenty days ago, Ali Ahmed al-Marrani returned with his family to their ancestral home in the village of Shaab in Arhab district. Once 83 relatives lived here, but the others are too scared to return. The house is littered with debris and shells, save for three rooms.
“What is our guilt?” said Marrani, staring at a Republican Guard base perched on a mountainside above his home. “Is it because we stood with the revolution?”