SANA’A – More than 200 people have been killed in clashes between Islamic rebels and government forces using warplanes and tanks; this is not Iraq, but the picture of new developments in Yemen.
Thousands of families are at risk as the clashes continue in the Marran mountains of Saddah area. Saddah is about 150km (93 mi.) north of the capital Sana’a, and close to the border with Saudi Arabia. It is the main center of the Zaidi Shia sect founded about 1,000 years ago.
The rebels have been chanting slogans against the United States and Israel, according to local reports. Air attacks and tank assaults have not been successful so far in getting rebel leader Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Hothy.
Al-Hothy, former member of Parliament for the al-Haq (Truth) party, is now leading an organization called “Believing Youth.”
The government accuses al-Hothi of setting up a group modeled on the Lebanese Hizbollah to re-establish monarchy in Yemen by force. He is also accused of preventing people paying the Islamic tax Zakat to the government and of trying to set himself up as Imam. Yemen has not had an imam since Zaidi Imam Hamid al-Din was overthrown as ruler in 1962.
Al-Hothi has denied the accusations. He says “Believing Youth” is being targeted because of its faith in Islam and its opposition to the United States and Israel.
Yemeni officials say they have been keeping an eye on “Believing Youth” for some time, but had not believed the movement would become so significant.
“During the U.S. war on Iraq, al-Hothi’s followers were in the front lines of demonstrations,” President Ali Abdallah Saleh said at a meeting with Islamic scholars last weekend. “We did not consider that a problem, we said they are only a few impetuous youths. But regrettably I have learned that al-Hothi has formed the ‘Believing Youth’ organization.”
President Saleh said al-Hothi has raised the Hizbollah flag instead of the national flag. “This is against unity.”
Leader of the Hizbollah in Lebanon Hassan Nasrallah denied any links with the rebels in Saddah. “The Hizbollah policy is not to intervene in other countries’ affairs,” he said in a statement.
The clashes in Saddah have set off political clashes between the government and the opposition Islamic parties. The opposition has called on the government to stop indiscriminate use of weapons and to open peaceful talks with the rebels.
The opposition has asked the President to lift the siege of several civilian areas in Saddah. “This bloodshed, destruction of homes and assaults on people are truly regrettable and a cause for sorrow,” they said in a statement.
The ruling General People’s Congress has threatened to take the opposition to court over its stand.
The rebellion has created divisions also among Zaidi scholars. Some Zaidi Shia clerics have dismissed the rebellion as only a “fitnah” (disturbance) among Yemeni Muslims. Zaidi judge Ahmed al-Shami says the military action is only following a fatwa issued by chairman of the Public Fatwa Authority Hamoud bin Abbas al-Moayyad.
These clerics say al-Hothi does not represent the views of the Zaidis, and that they should reject his leadership. Others are supportive of al-Hothi.
Earlier this week the Yemeni government ordered closure of all unlicensed religious schools. “Due to the connection between extremism, militancy and certain curricula that promote deviant and alien ideologies, the Cabinet has issued orders for the immediate closure of all schools and centers violating the education law,” the cabinet said in a statement.
The government integrated 140 religious schools run by Shias, Sunnis and Sufis with government schools in 1999. But many have continued to work independently.
The order to close the schools reflects “strong foreign pressure on the government,” political analyst Mohammed al-Sabri told IPS.
Citizen groups in Marran have meanwhile appealed to international and humanitarian organizations to come urgently to the rescue of thousands of families threatened by the siege.