Since the beginning of this year, 250 rebel fighters and over 150 government soldiers have been killed in violent clashes in the northern province of Saada. The Shiite rebel militants, known as Shabab al-Muminayn or “The Believing Youth,” are supporters of the late Shiite cleric, Hussein al-Houthi, and are currently led by his brother, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi. They are known to be followers of the Zaidi Shiite family and are referred to as “Zaidi militants.” The political aims of the Zaidi militants remain ambiguous, as leadership has denied accusations of overthrowing the Yemeni government and re-instating the Shiite Imamate that ruled Northern Yemen until the 1962 revolution. However, Zaidi fighters vehemently oppose Yemen’s alliance with Washington and reject President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s cooperation in the United States-led Global War on Terror (GWOT).
The clashes between the Zaidi militants and government troops have not only resulted in many deaths, but a growing deterioration of security and increasing instability in Yemen. If the matter is not fully contained, it could potentially ignite further sectarian divides and violence throughout the region. In fact, on Monday, March 12, 2007, Yemen President Saleh declared that his government would not have any dialogue with the rebel group and that their only option was to put down their weapons and surrender (source).
Al-Houthi Rebels Strike Hard in Yemen:
In the past three weeks alone, Yemen government forces have killed 160 rebel fighters in ongoing attacks in Saada. It is important to note that although Sunni Muslims make up most of Yemen’s 19 million population and only 15 percent are Shiite, a large percent of the Shiite community in Saada support Zaidi militants. The following chronicles recent incidents leading up to the current instability:
• Late January 2007: Clashes between the two sides were re-ignited after al-Houthi supporters threatened to kill members of a small community of 45 Jews in Saada if they did not leave the country within 10 days. The Jews took refuge in a hotel in the provincial capital, Saada city, under the protection of a local sheikh.
• February 2, 2007: Ten Yemeni soldiers killed and 20 wounded in an attack on an army roadblock in the Saada province, northwest of the country near the Saudi Arabian border. President Saleh warned the rebels to surrender their weapons or face a showdown with security forces (Terrorist Incident, Previous Report).
• February 5, 2007: 42 Yemeni soldiers killed and 81 wounded in just over one week of clashes with Zaidi militants. The militants refused to surrender to government forces .
• February 19, 2007: 90 Yemeni soldiers were killed in within five days during clashes. This marks the highest number of government forces killed during the recent outburst of sectarian violence. Government forces fired artillery bombardments over the areas where the Zaidi fighters were believed to be hiding in Saada .
• February 22, 2007: 15 Yemeni government soldiers and an unspecified number of Shiite Muslim rebels were killed in clashes over two days. About 40 Zaidi Shiite rebel fighters were arrested across the country.
Yemen has witnessed even more intense sectarian violence from Zaidi militants in the past. More than 400 people from both sides were killed in a three-month revolt that began in June 2004 (Previous Report). Government reports say that over the years, clashes between supporters of the late Hussein al-Houthi and government troops have claimed the lives of 727 government forces and wounded another 5,296.
Regional Discourse and Implications:
Last month, members of the Yemen Supreme Defense Council voiced concerns, saying the Shiite rebels were receiving funds and assistance from outside countries such as Libya and Iran. However, al-Houthi denies that his group has Iranian or Libyan links. Additionally, Iran has expressed concern over the deadly clashes in Yemen, hinting that some elements were “seeking to create sectarian strife there similar to Iraq” (source). Iranian security officials say that the Iranian political regime does not permit support of the rebellion, however, there are Iranian religious institutions that support the rebellions.
Yemen has asked Libya to extradite Yahya al-Houthi, the brother of leader Abdel al-Malik al-Houthi, in hopes of quelling the Zaidi uprising. However, no further action has been taken. Growing fears from neighboring countries over the potential spillover of violence have pressured President Saleh into striking back with an iron fist, with calls for the group to put down their weapons.
Yemen must remain adamant and strong in the face of the threats of violence by Shabab al-Muminayn, in order to effectively deter the rebels from further pursuing their goals. If government forces engage in dialogue with the militants, they will appear weak and may be forced into striking an unhealthy agreement with the rebels.
Other regional conflicts face similar Shiite and Sunni challenges, and are closely watching how the Yemen situation evolves. A Yemeni compromise may have the potential to set a precedent for other regional sectarian conflicts, such as in Iraq, which could result in even more violence and increased instability.