Secessionist Conflict Spills Over Yemeni Border
Shia Muslim Houthi fighters citing political, economic and religious marginalisation have been battling the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, since 2004. Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries and a crucial US ally in Washington’s fight against al-Qaeda is still in the midst of a series of conflicts that threaten its stability. As well as battling al-Qaeda fighters and dealing with growing secessionist efforts from south Yemen, the government has for five-years waged a campaign against a group of Shia Muslim fighters in the country’s north.
The conflict with the Houthi fighters, which has cost the lives of thousands of people, is a mix of local and tribal concerns stemming from historical roots. Although the current campaign is part of a fight that has been under way since 2004, its roots go back even further.
Zaydi Rulers Are Toppled
In 1962, a revolution in Yemen ended over 1,000 years of rule by Zaydi Hashemites, who claimed descendants from the Prophet Mohammed. Zaydism is a branch of Shia Islam though its practices often appear closer to Sunni Islam than traditional Shia beliefs. Saada in the north was their main stronghold and since their fall from power the region was largely ignored economically and remains underdeveloped.
During Yemen’s 1994 civil war, the Wahhabis, an Islamic group adhering to a strict version of Sunni Islam found in neighboring Saudi Arabia, helped the government in its fight against the secessionist south. Zaydis complain the government has subsequently allowed the Wahabis too strong a voice in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, worries that strife instigated by the Shia sect so close to Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia could stir up groups in Saudi itself.
Although it has received little international media coverage, the conflict essentially pits Yemen’s Sunni-majority government against Shia fighters, a conflict that is of great interest to Arab countries worried about the rising influence of Shia-ruled Iran. Yemeni officials have frequently accused Iran of funding the Houthi fighters.
The last five years of fighting against the armed Houthi group were sparked in 2004 by the government’s attempt to arrest Hussein al-Houthi, a Zaydi religious leader and a former parliamentarian on whose head the government had placed a $55,000 bounty.
The Yemeni government has little authority in the mountainous areas outside the major cities, but amid a sustained campaign, al-Houthi was killed in an attack on his hideout. Fighting eased over the years and in 2007 a deal was signed between the government and the fighters, but never implemented. A year later, in 2008, Qatari mediators helped revive the deal and the two sides met in Doha to sign a document outlining procedures for the implementation of the earlier agreement. But on August 10, 2009, Ali Abdullah al-Saleh, the Yemeni president, said the fighters showed no intention of adhering to the peace process and accused them of destroying homes and farms and blocking food distribution. The campaign began again and Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee announced it would crush the fighters with an “iron fist”.
Enough is Enough Already . . .
Following a long period of restraint in the face of repeated Houthi infiltration into the territory of the Kingdom, Saudi forces launched a major military offensive across the Yemen border in what they have stated is their legitimate right to protect its territory by military force. Central Gulf and Arab states have had mixed reactions, indicating that the conflict is not what is generally considered a “war”, attributed to the fact that the opponent (Houthis) are not an organized military force, but rather an irregular formation dependent upon guerrilla tactics consistent with self preservation in the harsh mountainous region.
Saudi Arabian forces have carried out their campaign into Yemeni territory using tanks, artillery and fighter-bomber aircraft sorties, primarily in the border districts of Malahiz and Shada provinces. The Saudis [are] insisting … that the aim of the air strikes and military campaign is not just to pound Houthi areas but to make sure the Houthis are not going back to the borders to launch attacks against Saudi Arabia. The area is extremely difficult for campaigning; it is rugged terrain where the Houthis have had remarkable success using guerrilla tactics to wage hit-and-run attacks against both the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabian military forces. According to remarks made by Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz Saudi, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, “when it comes to crossing the borders and violating the security of the Saudi Kingdom, “we will defend the Saudi territories even if it is just one metre.”
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