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As al-Qaida grows, Yemen battles Shiite rebels

While the U.S. is pressing Yemen hard to take action against an increasingly powerful al-Qaida, this turmoil-ridden nation is too busy fighting an escalating war with Shiite rebels.

world Updated: Sep 17, 2009 13:10 IST

While the U.S. is pressing Yemen hard to take action against an increasingly powerful al-Qaida, this turmoil-ridden nation is too busy fighting an escalating war with Shiite rebels. The chaos may only help the terror network flourish. Every day, warplanes screech over the capital San'a heading for the front in the northern region of Saada, on the border with Saudi Arabia.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis have fled the fighting, cramming into camps, schools and even barns, as aid groups struggle to get supplies to them. On Wednesday, witnesses reported that a strike killed dozens of refugees at a makeshift camp north of the capital, though details of the casualties remain unclear.

The turmoil in Saada and the resulting humanitarian crisis pile yet more woes onto this impoverished nation, fueling concerns whether the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh can handle it all. The country is already struggling with secessionists in the south, al-Qaida militants in the east, pirates off its coasts, disgruntled tribes all over and a crumbling economy.

American officials have made clear their frustration to Yemeni leaders about the sporadic attention paid to al-Qaida militants. More broadly, Washington has openly expressed concern that Yemen could fall apart and become another Afghanistan, opening the door for al-Qaida to operate even more freely.

That would give the terror network a stronghold in a highly strategic location in close proximity to Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf countries. Yemen also overlooks one of the world's most important sea routes, the Gulf of Aden _ and just across the way lies Somalia, an even more chaotic nation where al-Qaida is active.

Despite U.S. pressure, Yemen says it's determined to stamp out the rebellion, which it considers an existential threat, claiming it seeks to overthrow the government and establish rule by a Shiite "Imamate." It has depicted the war as a regional conflict, saying mainly Shiite Iran is backing the rebels to get a foothold in the region. That has raised the concerns of neighboring Saudi Arabia _ though the U.S. appears skeptical of the allegations.

The rebels are "a real threat to Yemen's stability and its constitutional government," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi told The Associated Press. "They are ... an insurgency that is now destabilizing part of the country and if not stemmed it will expand and ... al-Qaida will take advantage of the situation." There are fears that the government could turn to a policy of accomodating al-Qaida to focus on its other opponents.

Last month, Yemen suddenly diverted troops that, on U.S. urging, had just begun a campaign against al-Qaida militants, moving them instead to fight the rebels.

The Yemeni government has been fighting intermittently with the Shiite rebels since June 2004. The rebels are known as the Hawthis, after their former leader, Shiite cleric Hussein Badr Eddin al-Hawthi, who was killed in clashes later that year. His brother Abdel-Malek al-Hawthi took over as leader. The conflict has claimed thousands of lives and displaced 150,000 people.

The rebels, from tribes belonging to the Zaydi sect of Shiism, rose up because of decades of largely unaddressed grievances and resentment over the lack of resources and development. They also accuse the government of increasingly allying with hard-line Sunni fundamentalists, some of whom consider Shiites as heretics. Fighting escalated dramatically in early August, when the rebels captured an army post on a strategic highway between the capital and the Saudi border. The government unleashed a heavy offensive, including artillery bombardment and _ for the first time _ nighttime air raids by warplanes. Fighting has come within 75 miles of the capital, and the rebels have said they want to drag the government into a guerrilla war. A Sept. 4 cease-fire fell apart within hours. The rebels and local officials in Saada have claimed civilians have been killed, but firm casualty figures have been hard to come by.

The Yemeni government blames Iran for the escalation. President Saleh told Al-Jazeera television in an interview Friday that two arrested Hawthi cells admitted receiving about $100,000 from elements in Iran.

However, Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he believes "much of the 'proxy war' claims are overblown. "I have yet to see any truly convincing evidence that the Iranian government is currently active in supporting the violence in Saada," he told AP.

Nevertheless the allegations make regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia nervous.

A Saudi official told AP that Iran's alleged involvement in Yemen is "no doubt troubling" and that the Sunni-led kingdom is concerned Iran may start working with al-Qaida in Yemen. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The kingdom already says its main threat from al-Qaida comes from militants who fled its harsh crackdown to Yemen and seek to operate across the porous border.

A reminder of the threat came on Aug. 27, when a Yemen-based Saudi al-Qaida member tried to assassinate the kingdom's assistant interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in Riyadh. The militant blew himself up, wounding Mohammed.

Al-Qaida has taken advantage of the Yemeni government's lack of control over large swaths of the country to build up its presence, finding refugee with tribesmen in eastern provinces who are disgruntled with San'a. Al-Qaida has carried out a string of attacks in Yemen in the past year, including a September 2008 assault on the U.S. Embassy.

Hanging over all Yemen's conflicts is its biggest problem: deep poverty and a worsening economy. Yemen, a country of 22 million people, has a 35 percent unemployment rate and a 50 percent literacy rate. Its population is growing at more than 3 percent annually, one of the world's highest.

Oil production has dropped by about 40 percent, gouging the finances of a country where oil constitutes about 70 percent of government revenues. The impact can be seen on the shabby streets of San'a, where crowds of beggars surround cars that stop at traffic lights, and in the increase in power cuts that can last up to eight hours a day.

"The economic situation is making it very difficult for the government to decide where to start" with all the other problems, al-Qirbi said. "If you tackle one or two the others may grow bigger."