Sun, Oct 05, 2014 - Page 5 News List

ANALYSIS: Shiite rebels dominate Yemeni capital


The capital of Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest and perhaps most chronically unstable nation, has new masters. Anti-US Shiite rebels man checkpoints and roam the streets in pickups mounted with anti-aircraft guns. The fighters control almost all state buildings, from the airport and the central bank to the Ministry of Defense.

While the world has been focused on the fight against Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq, Yemen at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula saw its own seismic upheaval when Shiite rebels known as Houthis overran Sana’a two weeks ago.

Now the Houthis, who many believe are backed by Shiite-led Iran, are poised to become top power brokers dominating the government and running a virtual state-within-a-state.

Their takeover of the capital also threatens to bring a violent backlash from militant Sunnis, creating a sectarian battle that could boost al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which the US has been battling for years in a drone campaign and in coordination with the Yemeni military. The rallying cry of fighting against Shiite power could turn Yemen into a magnet for Sunni extremists from around the region, like Syria and Iraq.

US-backed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is largely helpless, struggling to form a new government to meet the Houthis’ demands. Neighboring Saudi Arabia is worried over a potential pro-Iranian outpost on its border.

In an interview, Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy who has been mediating among the Yemeni government, the Houthis and other factions, said that “this takeover of Sana’a by the Houthis will widely reverberate in Yemen and the region.”

“Yemen will now be seen as linked to other situations in the region, with regional and international involvement,” he said.

The Houthis, who call themselves Ansar Allah, Arabic for “Supporters of God,” are followers of the Zaidi faith, a branch of Shiite Islam that is almost exclusively found in Yemen whose believers make up about 30 percent of the country’s population. Zaidi religious leaders ruled much of northern Yemen for centuries and the Houthis — backers of the Houthi family, a clan that claims descent from the Prophet Mohammed — have sought to revive Zaidi identity.

The rebels, led by 33-year-old Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, fought a series of civil wars since the mid-2000s from their stronghold of Saada, north of Sana’a. In 2011, they took complete control of Saada Governorate.

However, their advances this year have been startling. They swept south, defeating Sunni tribesmen loyal to the conservative Sunni Islah party, and in July captured Amran Governorate, which borders the capital. They then overran the capital itself on Sept. 21, as the Yemeni military largely collapsed.

The Houthis present themselves as seeking to achieve the goals of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that led to the overthrow of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. They reject a deal brokered by Persian Gulf states that led to Saleh stepping down and Hadi taking his place because it largely splits power between Saleh’s supporters and the Islah party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen.

Instead, they say, they want a broader government that includes their movement and southern separatist Yemenis. And they want implementation of a plan reached by political parties in January to give greater autonomy to Yemen’s regions.

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