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Yemen, Saudi Arabia Fight Shi'ite Rebels in Northern Yemen

Saudi Arabia, Yemen's neighbor to the north, has launched its own operations against the Houthis. And Yemen accuses Iran of supporting the rebels.

Yemeni forces clash with Shi'ite Houthi rebels in the northern province of Saada, along the border with Saudi Arabia
Yemeni forces clash with Shi'ite Houthi rebels in the northern province of Saada, along the border with Saudi Arabia

Multimedia

Katayoun BeglariHamed Behravan

Yemen's bid to control and defeat al-Qaida on its territory is not its only challenge. In a remote part of northern Yemen, along the border with Saudi Arabia, another conflict has been raging - between government forces and rebels who the government suspects of operating with Iran's backing.

The northern province of Saada lies behind these mountains.

There, a sporadic five-year-long war between Yemeni government forces and Shi'ite Houthi fighters escalated recently. 

And there are said to be new players.

Saudi Arabia, Yemen's neighbor to the north, has launched its own operations against the Houthis. And Yemen accuses Iran of supporting the rebels.

"If there was no support for the Al Houthis from the Iranian religious figures, the conflict would have not taken this long," said Yemen's Minister of Information, Hassan al-Lozy.  "The Iranian government's goal is to portray this war as a Shi'ite-Sunni conflict."

Hussein al Houthi was a member of Yemen's parliament.  He was a frequent guest at this house in Yemen's capital, Sanaa.

In 2004, he launched an armed rebellion against the state.

He said he wanted to protect Zaidi Shi'ites, a majority in Saada, from Saudi-supported Wahabi Sunnis, whose numbers were growing in northern Yemen.   

Wahabism is the fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.  It says true Islam consists only of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. 

Sunnis, although not Wahabis, are the majority in Yemen.

Government forces killed Hussein al Houthi in 2004.

"He was my very close friend," said Hassan Al Zaid, who founded the Al Haq Party with Hussein al Houthi.

He says Iran is not involved with the rebels. "It's a big lie," he said.

Hussein's younger brother Abdul Malek al Houthi became the rebel leader, but there are unconfirmed reports he was killed in a recent airstrike.   

After the Houthis seized some Saudi territory in early November, Riyadh launched an assault, including air strikes.

Some analysts say Iran and Saudi Arabia are proxies in the war.  Yemen is strategically located at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Abdul Ghani al Eryani is an independent political adviser.  "The war has not yet turned into a proxy war," he said.

The U.S. State Department also says there is no proof that Iran is supporting Shiite rebels in Yemen.

And Iran denies helping the Houthis.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since 2004, up to 175,000 people in Saada have fled their homes.

Most are living in a displaced persons camp near the war zone.

Naseem Al Rahman is UNICEF's representative in Yemen.  "The worst effect of this conflict is on the women," he said.

Al Rahman says Yemen is sacrificing its future by continuing the war.

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