Fighting between Yemeni government forces and a Shi'ite rebel group in
the north of the country appears to have intensified, with reports of
casualties on both sides.
Eyewitnesses say Yemeni government
helicopters have been pounding shi'ite rebels in the northern town of
Saada, causing dozens of casualties. Fighting between government
forces and the Houthy rebels began several days ago, and appears to
Al-Arabiya TV reported the rebels, who want to
restore a Za'idi Shiite sultanate overthrown in 1962, have cut off a
main highway in a bid to pressure the government.
The TV showed
images of several government tanks that were allegedly destroyed by the
rebels during fighting. Civilian casualties were reported at a market
outside the provincial capital of Saada.
The Arab daily
Asharqalawsat claims the "Yemeni government has intervened to protect
its citizenry, by hitting the Houthy rebels with an iron fist." The
paper added that the government offensive began "after a warning to the
rebels to halt acts of sabotage."
Other reports say that the
government is demanding that the rebels release six Europeans that they
allegedly hold, in addition to evacuating government buildings, and
returning looted ammunition.
Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches
political science at the University of Paris III, says the fighting
between the Yemeni government and the Houthy rebels has been repeatedly
flaring up for the past 15 years.
He says that this is the sixth
war in a long series between the Yemeni government and the Houthy
rebels, which began in 1994. This new conflict has been in gestation
for a while, now, he adds. The founder of the Houthy sect, Badreddin
Houthy, he notes, has tried to restore the old shi'ite sultanate and
some suspect he was supported by countries like Iran, Qatar, or Libya.
rebels, he says, are not just trying to destabilize Yemen, but also to
send a message to Saudi Arabia, since it supports the government of
President Ali Abdallah Saleh. He says Yemen is now in a serious phase
of destabilization, with three different threats: one from the Houthy
rebels, a second from separatists in the south, and third by an upsurge
in al-Qaida activity.
Many news reports allege Iranian support
for the Houthy rebels against the government of Ali Abdalleh Saleh. Prof. Ahmed Abdul-Karim Saif, who teaches at the University of Sana'a
says that numerous geopolitical and economic factors are behind the
He says that Iran officially denies involvement in
these events, but there are signs of involvement, such as the presence
of the Iranian version of Shiism, a version that has traditionally not
been present for the last 1400 years. So, he argues, it appears to be
a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for leadership in the Arab
world, along the lines of what is going on in Iraq and southern Lebanon
The creation of a Hezbollah-like entity on the border with
Saudi Arabia, he stresses, is not acceptable regionally, from a
security standpoint, not to mention the other endemic problems which
plague Yemen, including conflicts and occupation in the south, al-Qaida
and the world economic crisis. All these problems weaken the central
government, he says, and create an atmosphere for the rebels to try and
George Mason University Politics Professor Mark Katz
says the Houthy rebellion is not a regional development but mostly a
local phenomenon in which the Iranian aspect of the conflict has been
"I think that it is just really mainly local," he
said. "Obviously, the rebels are shiites, but most of the Yemeni
government leadership is also shi'ite, but they are not the same kind
of Shi'ites as in Iran."
"The Yemenis are Zaidis; they follow
the fifth, whereas the Iranians follow the twelfth Imam, and so the
connections between these Houthies and Iran, I do not think, exist, and
you can look at the Iranian-Yemeni relations: they are actually pretty
good. In the Iranian press, you can also find criticism of the Iranian
government for not doing more for the shi'ite opposition movement in
Yemen. The Houthy rebellion is serious, but ... the dispute is quite
personal between the Houthy leadership and President Saleh," he added.
son of rebel leader Badreddin Houthy, Hussein, was killed during
fighting with government forces in 2004, and relations between the
rebels and President Ali Abdallah Saleh have been bitter, ever since.
society is tribal, and conflicts between the government and various
tribes are a traditional part of life in the country. The influx of
outside forces, such as al Qaida, and alleged Iranian support for the
Houthy rebellion, have created a number of deadly and paralyzing proxy
wars inside the country, as well.