SANA’A, Yemen – Militants from a major Shia group within Yemen have stepped up their fight against the government over recent weeks. The group opposes what it sees as policies supportive of the United States and Israel.
Militants from the al-Houthi group, a militant force of Shia Muslims from the local Zaidi sect, have been attacking government targets with increasing force. The fighting is concentrated in the Saada governorate in the north of the country.
Government officials say the new wave of attacks arose after militants from the al-Houthi group were released under an amnesty. Clashes between the group and government forces have continued sporadically for about three years.
Al-Houthi has said the government is "an ally of Americans and Jews." The government has received strong U.S. support to introduce several measures to curb terrorism in the region.
Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the new leader of this group says the militants are fighting as members of a new organization, the Mujahedeen Group. Al-Houthi members had earlier taken on the government as a part of the Believing Youth group formed earlier by Hussein Badraddin al-Houthi, who was killed in September 2004.
But Abdul-Malik al-Houthi says the new group’s slogan is the same: "God the Greatest Death to America and Israel Victory for Islam and Muslims."
The conflict has a strong sectarian dimension to it.
Some of the major Muslim sects within Yemen are the Zaidis (who are Shias), Salafis, and Sunnis. Some Zaidi Shias are called Sadah (meaning literally superior people who refuse to be controlled by any authority, and seek sovereignty).
The al-Houthi family belongs to the Sadah group. Leaders of this sect say the authorities are encouraging Salafi ideology in Saada province, historically the fortress of Zaidism in Yemen. They want Saada for Zaidis only, who form about a fifth of the population of 30 million.
Yemen has officially asked Libya to extradite Yahya al-Houthi, brother of Hussein Badraddin al-Houthi, for his hand in the new clashes in Saada. Yahya al-Houthi, former MP, left the country in 2005 after accusing the government of trying to annihilate the al-Houthi Shias.
Yahya al-Houthi said in a statement that "al-Houthi fighters in Saada are a resistance movement against the Salafi sect invasion of Saada, the fortress of Zaidi Shias."
Military sources say that al-Houthi’s three-year battle with the government has cost Yemen an estimated $800 million, and claimed the lives of more than 500 troops, al-Houthi members, and civilians. More than 2,000 are said to have been injured, with extensive damage to property.
In the new round of fighting since late December last year, 95 al-Houthi members and 42 soldiers have been killed, military sources said.
The government is determined to crush the uprising.
"Radical al-Houthi and his rebels want to install an Islamic theocracy; that is impossible," Shura Council chairman Abdul-Aziz Abdul-Ghani told IPS. "They lost the offer by the state to disarm and form a political party to live in peace."
"Unfortunately, the rebels have this time lost all grounds for negotiations," said Ahmed al-Kibsi, professor of politics at Sana’a University. "How can the government negotiate with a group whose only aim is to overthrow the government?"
In a move to isolate the rebels, Yemeni authorities have blocked communications including mobile phone services in the restive northern province. But this has not necessarily helped the government. A parliamentary group that sought to negotiate with the Houthi leadership returned because it could not establish communication with the rebel leaders.
Militarily the suspension of communications has meant that the government is itself cut off from monitoring communications around Houthi strongholds.
Under the circumstances, humanitarian assistance has become impossible in the region.
Khalid al-Anisi, executive director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, an NGO, told IPS that the clashes in Saada might have negative consequences at the national level.
"Several houses have already been destroyed, students no longer go to school, agricultural farms have been damaged, and work has come to a standstill," he said.
Al-Houthi supporters have threatened to extend confrontation with the government to other provinces, while the government says it is on course to crushing the rebellion.
Amnesty International has appealed to President Ali Abdullah Saleh to take all necessary measures in accordance with international law to protect human rights in Saada.
Amnesty says a complete assessment of the human rights situation in Saada is not possible at present because all communication with the area has been cut off and journalists denied access to the area.