Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 November 2009
Issue No. 972
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Peninsula on the brink

Saudi Arabia's direct involvement in the conflict between the Yemeni government and the Al-Houthi rebels represents a potentially dangerous escalation, reports Nasser Arrabyee

The five-year-old sporadic conflict between the Al-Houthi Shia rebels and the Yemeni government this week entered a new stage with neighbouring Saudi Arabia becoming directly involved in the fight against the rebels.

Saudi Arabia says it will continue to support the Yemeni government in the latter's attempts to finish off the rebels, who attacked and occupied Saudi territory on 5 November.

"We are not going to stop the bombing until the rebels retreat tens of kilometres inside border," Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khaled Bin Sultan told reporters on Tuesday.

The Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned Saudi Arabia of dire consequences if it continues war against the Al-Houthi rebels. "We strongly warn the regional countries to be careful, to be vigilant," he told reporters.

In response, Saudi forces killed and injured dozens of the rebels and arrested more than 250 of them in the fiercest battles seen since the beginning of the current round of the conflict in August 2009.

However, while Saudi forces drove back the rebels and regained Saudi territory in four days of fighting, particularly the strategic 2,000-metre-high Jabal Al-Dukhan in the Jaizan area in the south of the country, military officials say they need more time to comb border areas and cleanse them of the rebels.

On 5 November, the Al-Houthi rebels based in Yemen attacked and occupied the Saudi Jabal Al-Dukhan, killing one soldier and injuring 11 others.

About 40 rebels were arrested while infiltrating Saudi territory dressed in women's clothes, some of them being members of Al-Qaeda, which has tried to use Yemen as a launch pad to attack Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials said at the end of the military operations that three Saudi soldiers had been killed and 15 others injured, in addition to four women from the same family who had been killed when rebels pounded their houses in the Jaizan area.

Saudi officials also said that four Saudi soldiers were missing. For their part, the Al-Houthi rebels said that they still controlled Saudi territory and that they had arrested a number of Saudi soldiers.

"We are waiting for the ground attack from the Saudis, and we will confront them with a guerrilla war," the rebels said in a statement sent to the media by e-mail on 10 November. The Al-Houthi rebels are estimated to have some 10,000 fighters.

About 50,000 Saudi nationals from some 240 villages in the border areas were evacuated to safety before the Saudis launched their air strikes and artillery bombardments on the Al-Houthi rebels.

Meanwhile, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in a statement on 8 November that the conflict would only end with the crushing of the "group of traitors and agents" he called the Al-Houthi rebels. Saleh said that the real battles had only begun in recent days, and that Yemeni forces had only been "in training" over the previous 90 days of conflict with the rebels.

The Yemeni government has also accused Shia scholars in Iran, Kuwait and Bahrain of supporting the Al-Houthi rebels, and Yemeni officials are investigating five Iranians sailors arrested late in October on an Iranian ship laden with weapons, including anti-armour missiles, in the Yemeni harbour of Midi, which is only a few kilometres from Al-Malahaid in western Saada where the rebels have been fighting Yemeni and Saudi forces.

"The Iranian crew destroyed the SIMs of their mobiles and all the documents in their lap-tops, so that nobody would be able to understand where the ship came from or where it was going," the state-controlled Yemeni media quoted an unidentified investigator as saying. The Iranian embassy denied at the time the ship was carrying any weapons.

On Tuesday, the Saudi naval forces imposed a blockade on the Red Sea coast to tighten the noose on the rebels and prevent any possible support to them. The Saudi officials said they ordered their warships to search any suspected ships sailing near the harbour of Midi.

According to Yemeni military sources, the country's army is preparing for decisive battles with the rebels, who have seemed exhausted by the tight blockade of their region.

On 10 November, the Yemeni army said in a statement that it controlled the most important roads used by the rebels to receive supplies. A total of seven vehicles laden with supplies have recently been destroyed on these roads.

Amid these developments, there have been internal and external fears that the current conflict may turn into a regional one.

According to Ali Saif Hassan, chairman of the Political Development Forum, a local NGO, the Al-Houthi rebels have created new justifications for regional intervention by attacking Saudi territories.

"Although the Al-Houthi rebels' action was political more than military, it has created new justification for regional intervention," Hassan said.

"Before the Al-Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, calls for stopping the war were based on humanitarian and moral factors, but now the calls will be based on regional and international interests," he said.

Despite Saudi statements to the effect that Saudi armed forces had ended military operations after regaining the seized lands on 8 November, the Al-Houthi rebels said on 10 November that Saudi air strikes had continued using phosphorous bombs on strongholds inside Yemeni territory.

The Al-Houthi group said Tuesday in a statement sent via e- mails that Saudi air strikes targeted government buildings in Shada area west of Saada killing two women and a child.

For his part, Saudi scholar Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al-Sheikh, the mufti of Saudi Arabia, said in a press statement that fighting the Al-Houthi rebels was a duty, and that any soldiers, Yemeni or Saudi, who fought the rebels could be considered as mujahideen.

"The Al-Houthis are making an additional mistake by trying to impose their corrupt faith on Muslim society as a whole," Al-Sheikh was quoted by the Saudi media as saying.

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