by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 9 July 2004
At least 130 people have died so far in Yemen’s bloodiest internal conflict since the civil war of 1994. During the clashes, which began on June 18, security forces have resorted to tanks and warplanes in their effort to dislodge a rebel cleric and his supporters from a mountain stronghold in the northern province of Saada.
The besieged cleric, Hussein al-Houthi, is wanted for trial on charges of "harming Yemen's stability and interests" but as MEI went to press he showed no sign of surrendering.
Last weekend Yemeni officials put the cumulative death toll at 98 among al-Houthi’s supporters and 32 among the armed forces. Unofficial sources say the total could be as high as 200.
For once, there is no suggestion of a link to al-Qaeda, though al-Houthi has been accused of just about everything else: highway robbery, setting up unauthorised religious schools, raising the Hizbullah flag, damaging a water project, urging citizens to withhold taxes, attacking mosques and declaring himself Imam - a title not used in Yemen since the 1962 republican revolution.
The truth, or otherwise, of these accusations is still unclear but al-Houthi does appear to be in charge of an organisation called Believing Youth (Shabab al-Mu’min) whose teenage members cause disruption at mosques in various parts of the country by chanting ‘Death to America, Death to Israel’ after Friday prayers. The youths have often been often arrested - only to return later and do it again.
Al-Houthi, a former member of parliament for the Haqq (‘Truth’) party, says he has no quarrel with the government beyond opposing its co-operation with the United States.
In a handwritten note sent to President Ali Abdullah Salih through mediators, he wrote: ‘I do not work against you, I appreciate you and what you do tremendously, but what I do is my solemn national duty against the enemy of Islam and the community “America and Israel. I am by your side, so do not listen to hypocrites and provocateurs”.’
The government, meanwhile, insists that al-Houthi is simply using anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans as a ‘pretext’ to win popularity. ‘His followers are essentially Zaidi Hashemites,’ a high-level source told MEI last week.
The Zaidis - Shia Muslims - form a substantial minority in Yemen though their influence has decreased since the fall of the Imams.
Despite hints that al-Houthi has a secret monarchist agenda, the government’s sledgehammer approach has tended to increase public sympathy for him.
The military onslaught has been much criticised in the local press because Yemenis are well aware that fortified villages of the kind where al-Houthi is besieged - apparently armed only with light weapons and rocket-propelled grenades - are difficult to capture without heavy casualties and massive damage.
‘The situation could worsen and spread to other parts of the country if the government insists on using the strategy of excessive force,’ a prominent Zaidi told the Yemen Times last week, accusing the government of trying to sabotage mediation efforts.
The paper also noted that two respected and moderate preachers had been arrested for speaking out against the army’s action. One of them reportedly suggested that al-Houthi and his followers were being victimised for expressing ‘their outrage at what is happening to their brethren in Palestine and Iraq’.