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 have intensified.
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.
The 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 conflict.
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 secede.
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 exaggerated.
"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.
The 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.
Yemeni 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.