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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Yemen politics: War on Shia rebels


The Yemeni government has launched a major offensive, including the use of warplanes and battle tanks, in a bid to suppress a rebellion in the north-western Saada province by radical members of the Zaydi sect, a branch of Shia Islam that is prevalent in this part of the Arabian peninsula. According to Al Hayat, an Arabic newspaper, the past three days have witnessed intensive fighting, resulting in an estimated 55 rebel deaths and the loss of 20 government troops.

The conflict has created a zone of instability along the border with Saudi Arabia, and adds to a catalogue of security challenges facing the Yemeni government, including persistent threats from local al-Qaida cells and significant domestic support for and participation in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

From son to father

The Zaydi revolt started in September 2004 when members of a Shia sect led by Hussein Badr al-Din al-Huthi, the Believing Youth, began to sow dissent in protest against the government's co-operation with the US in its "war on terror". By the end of 2004, following serious military clashes, which resulted in thousands of fatalities, the destruction of much physical infrastructure and the death of Mr Huthi, it was assumed the revolt was over. However, sporadic clashes resumed the following year, as the Believing Youth resumed its conflict under the leadership of Badr al-Din al-Huthi (the father of the slain leader), and, although a truce was agreed in September 2005 (in return for the pardoning of all Zaydi prisoners), the violence has flared-up once more. The renewed wave of violence is reportedly being led by the brother of Hussein al-Huthi, Abdel Malik al-Huthi.

In late January seven government soldiers were killed following a surprise attack by rebels on a military position. Local press sources suggested that the incident was a revenge attack by al-Huthi elements, after three of their members were killed the previous week by unknown assailants. The Zaydi rebels claimed that the car used in the attack was subsequently seen parked inside a government compound. Unsurprisingly, the attack incited a fresh round of violence, which centred on the Zaydi village of Mathaab, located in the southern part of Saada governorate. After a week of fighting, the security forces had detained over 50 members of the rebel faction, with casualties and fatalities on both sides reaching over 40.

Although Abdul Malik al-Huthi, in an interview with a local English-language newspaper, the Yemen Observer, blamed government forces for the January incident, the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, warned that the attack was a provocation by both the Zaydi rebels and, somewhat opportunistically, by opposition parties, whom he blamed for encouraging the violence in revenge for their defeat in the elections in September last year. In response, he issued a clear warning to the rebels, ordering them to disarm or they would be swiftly defeated by a military force put together specifically for the task.

However, despite the strong words of the president, the prospect of a speedy military resolution appears remote, considering the difficulties the government has had in eradicating the group over the past two and a half years. In addition, should a military assault have a substantial impact on the local population, it could in fact benefit the Believing Youth, whose call for the overthrow of the republic and the setting up of a Shia theocracy has limited appeal among the more moderate Zaydi population.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida

Yemen also remains on alert against further attacks by local al-Qaida cells. Following a botched suicide bombing of oil facilities in the Marib area in September, al-Qaida posted a statement on the Internet stating that the attack was "only the first spark" and vowing further action. Al-Qaida is clearly keen to demonstrate its displeasure at the Yemeni government's security co-operation with the US, a cause with which much of the local population would have some sympathy. Combined with the country's weak governance, limited--and to a certain extent, compromised--security, as well as the fickleness of its rural tribes, the group would seem to see Yemen as something of a soft target. At the end of last year the Ministry of Interior announced that it had received intelligence that al-Qaida was planning to carry out further suicide attacks. The army was deployed around government institutions and foreign diplomatic missions and oil installations, and in Aden the port was shut down for a few hours and all shipping activity halted. Although in the event no such attack transpired, the clear risk of a further attack remains.

Iraqi extension

A clear indicator of the extent of militant fervour in Yemen is the number of Yemeni jihadis fighting in the insurgency in Iraq. Local press reports in mid-January suggested that up to 1,800 Yemenis have gone to Iraq since 2003, with an estimated 1,300 still in the country. The same reports also claim that some 153 Yemeni fighters have been killed in Iraq.

Not only is Yemen a source of militants, but it is also seemingly a bolt-hole for insurgents of other nationalities—primarily Iraqi—looking to evade the authorities in Iraq. Rumours abound among local media sources that up to 1,000 Iraqis loyal to the executed former president, Saddam Hussein, are in Yemen and that the sons of the former Iraqi vice-president, Izzat Ibrahim al‑Douri, are in Yemeni government custody. Speculation concerning Mr Douri's whereabouts deepened in late January after the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, told Reuters news agency that the Iraqi authorities believed him to be in Yemen. Mr Douri, the second-in-command of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, is the sixth on the US most-wanted list of 55 former Iraqi officials. He is the most senior Iraqi official still at large and is believed to be playing a part behind the scenes in conducting the ongoing Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

A Yemeni government source denied the claims, arguing that reports of Mr Douri's presence in Yemen had been circulated maliciously by Iraqi journalists. However, the possibility that former Iraqi Baath officials are at large in Yemen cannot be ruled out. The two countries had very close ties under Saddam Hussein's regime, to the extent that Yemen supported Iraq during the first Gulf war, attracting the opprobrium of other regional states.

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