Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2007
Issue No. 838
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yemen's rebels undefeated

Two months since war broke out between the Yemeni government troops and armed rebels in Saada, there is no end in sight to the fighting, Nasser Arrabyee reports

The rebel fighters are followers of a Shia cleric, Hussein Al-Houthi, from the country's Zaidi Shia minority and are based in Al-Naqaa, a mountainous area in southern Saudi Arabia. This is the third outbreak of fighting in recent years, with hundreds dead and many injured and homeless. The recent fighting is more intense than past outbreaks.

The Al-Houthis have adopted new tactics: five men dressed in women's clothes and black sharshafs were arrested last week while attempting to carry out terrorist acts in the northern city of Saada, which is under government control. Local residents said that the rebels have also been using women, children and old people as human shields.

Officials estimate there are less than 3,000 rebels, but they can not say why the two- months campaign against them involving 30,000 troupes has not been able to contain them.

The war started in late January after the rebels evicted 45 Yemeni Jews from their houses in Saada province and attacked a Saudi company repairing roads near the Saudi border.

Nobody knows clearly what the Al-Houthis want from the war or from the state. Their slogan is "Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on Jews and victory to Islam," and has not changed since the first rebellion in 2004. "They say it's better to be killed here in our mountains, than in the streets if we surrender," a source close to Al-Houthi family told Al Ahram Weekly.

"They told me that Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi, who was killed in 2004, is still alive, and they are only following his instructions now," added the anonymous source.

The Al-Houthis accused the government of weakening the Zaidi sect by encouraging Salafis, though Zaidi officials deny this. Some Al-Houthi clerical sympathisers in Saada province were replaced by Salafis after the first war late 2004. This angered the Al-Houthis and led to more unrest. There is also an army recruitment office in Saada but officials deny the fighting is tribal-based.

"The problem is that they do not want to reveal their identity, they want to continue misleading their followers, allegating that the Zaidi sect is being targeted by Salafis, but if you read their publications, you find they have renounced the Zaidi sect, and that they do not have any popular programme," said the governor of Saada Yahya Al-Shami this week.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has appealed to the Al-Houthis to give up their weapons and form a political party to peacefully purse their goals, but they did not reply.

Military officers argue that the problem will only be solved by killing the leaders of the rebellion and having a dialogue with followers. Observers counter that there are underlying ideological issues that cannot be solved by force.

Although some small operations were carried out by the Al-Houthis outside Saada in neighbouring Hajja and Amran, officials deny there is any support for the rebels elsewhere in Yemen.

"Possibly a few Hashemites or Zaidis are Al-Houthi followers, but the Al-Houthis do not represent the Zaidis or Hashemites, they represent only themselves," said Al-Shami, who is Hashemite.

Officials accuse Iran and Libya of supporting the rebels, though both countries deny this.

Officials say such accusations are based on repeated visits of Yahya Al-Houthi to Iran and Libya and sympathetic stories in their media. Yahya Al-Houthi, brother of the slain Hussein, is living in Germany now, and Yemen has been demanding his extradition through Interpol.

As Saada is inaccessible to foreign media, it is impossible to interview the rebels. Human right groups have organised meetings calling for an end to the war and rebellion. Last week a number of right groups warned against turning Yemen to an arena for settling regional disputes using political or sectarian issues.

Mohamed Yahya Salem Azzan, one of the founders of the Al-Houthi Young Faithful Believers Organisation in 1991, who has since defected from the rebels, criticised them in a long interview published in the state-run media.

"For them, reason has no value if it does not fit their model -- their Master, Al Houthi," said Azzan. "They consider that the Sunna, the Prophet's acts and sayings, are not reliable because they are from the Prophet's companions, who they see as the reason behind the defeat of the Ummah. Since late 2000, Hussein refused any modernisation in our organisation."

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