The conflict between Yemeni authorities and Shiite rebels based in the country’s volatile northern province of Saada has violently escalated in recent days. On May 5, fighting between the Yemini military and rebels in Saada killed 19 Shiite rebels and injured six soldiers, according to a local official. On May 12, a court in the capital city of Sanaa condemned four rebels to death after finding them guilty for the death of four soldiers during an attack in 2007. Three of the rebels were tried in absentia.
The Houthis insurrection
The conflict between the Yemeni Army and the Shiite rebels in the Saada region began simply as a local unrest. In 2003, Hussein al-Houthi, a religious leader in Saada and head of group Al Shabab al-Moumin, or the Youthful Believers, called on his followers to protest the US invasion of Iraq.
The Shiite insurgents are popularly known as Houthis after their commander, Hussein al-Houthi.
According to Sami Noaman, a Yemeni journalist, “the Yemen government discourages such anti-American gatherings, fearing an escalation of the situation.” While al- Houthi was part of the Yemeni government in 1994, he gradually fell out with the government over his increasingly violent anti-US rhetoric.
The first confrontation dates back to June 4, 2004 during a protest in front of the US Embassy in Sanaa. The Yemeni Army fired on the crowd leaving two dead – including a 15-year-old - and several injured.
The four major stages of the Houthis conflict
There have been four stages or “wars” in the Houthis conflict, according to Noaman.
The June 2004 protest marks the beginning of the first “war” between the Yemeni Army and the Houthis, led by Hussein al-Houthi. Determined to eradicate anti-US movements, the Yemeni government killed Houssein al-Houthi after three months of fighting.
Hussein’s father, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, took over after his son’s death. The deadly fighting that began in March 2005, marks the start of the second Houthi rebellion in Yemen. Like the first war, it lasted three months. Rebellion leader, Badr al-Din al-Houthi was killed in combat.
Qatar steps in
The violent clashes that followed Yemen’s Jan. 2007 presidential elections led to a four-month period of chaos. Faced with the severity of the situation, Qatar offered to mediate between the rebel group and the government. In doing so, Qatar “is in search of power and recognition on the international scene,” according to Naoman.
As a result of this arbitration, the Yemeni government and the Houthis signed an agreement in June 2007. But the violence did not cease. The principal clause of the agreement was a provision for a ceasefire. Other clauses “can be surprising” according to Sami Noaman. “The agreement authorises the Houthis to keep control of certain large regions. As a result, the role of the State is completely marginalized,” he explains.
Sunni Saudi Arabia applies pressure on Sanaa
The Houthis belong to the Shiite sect of Zaidis, a sect considered moderate by many scholars. Despite the rebel’s religious rhetoric, the rebel group has been denounced by moderate Zaidis. Indeed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh belongs to the Zaidi sect.
But since 2004, the Houthis have begun to advocate a political line similar to that of the Hezbollalh, sparking suspicion from Yemen’s powerful Sunni neighbour, Saudi Arabia. According to Noamam, Riyadh has been quick to put pressure on Sanaa to quell the growing Houthi influence.