Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Yemen cracks down on Zahdi insurgency

Yemeni government sources are reporting the army has pushed rebel fighters out of several key strongholds in the mountainous north of the country. The army has re-captured the town of Qalaa from a Shia rebel movement known as the Believing Youth. 40 soldiers and 20 rebels were killed in the re-taking of the town after the rebels took control in April.

The Believing Youth (Arabic: al-Shabab al-Mum’en) is an Islamic extremist organisation of Zaydi tribesmen. Zaydi is an offshoot of Shia, founded a thousand years ago, and is unique to Yemen. Zaydism is practiced by a quarter of Yemen’s 20 million population while the are Shafa'i order of Sunni. The focus of the revolt is the town of Saada, close to the border with Saudi Arabia and 230km north of the capital Sana’a. The Shia rebels oppose Yemen's close alliance with the US and model themselves on Lebanese Hezbollah. The government accuses the rebels of wanting to reinstall the Islamic Imamate that was overthrown in 1962.

While the central government appears to have taken back Qalaa, intense fighting has also broken out south of Saada. Government forces launched air raids and mortar bombardments of rebel-held areas surrounding the city. Thousands of people have fled their homes in the latest bout of the conflict, which has been raging on and off since 2004.

The initial conflict began when Hussain Badr al-din al-Houthi founded the Believing Youth in 2004 and led them in armed uprising against the government. Their slogan was "Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on Jews and victory to Islam.” The government put a price of $US50,000 on his head after months of battles between rebels and Yemeni security forces. Yemeni warplanes and artillery pounded his hideouts in the Jabal Maraan mountains. Government troops finally killed Al-Houthi in September 2004. Skirmishes died out but resumed again early this year led by Al-Huthi’s brother, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. A third brother Yahya al-Houthi now says the group is willing to negotiate a peace settlement. Yahya is living in exile in Libya and Yemen has been demanding his extradition through Interpol.

Yemen has now recalled ambassadors from Libya and Iran in protest at their support of the rebels. Yemen alleges they provided financial aid and weapons to the Zaydis. President Ali Abdullah Saleh approved a summoning of the ambassadors from Tripoli and Tehran for consultation. Party officials have publicly accused Libya and Iran of providing the Shiite rebels with financial aid that helped them buy weapons. In response Libya said it was trying to mediate between the parties while Iran denounced the accusations as 'irresponsible allegations.'

Islam first came to Yemen during the lifetime of Mohammed. The Persian Governor of Yemen was converted around 630 AD (around the same time as the conquest of Mecca). The Egyptian Mamelukes ruled the kingdom until the Ottoman Empire took over in the mid fifteenth century. Britain took in an interest in the 19th century, particularly in the strategically vital seaport of Aden. It negotiated a series of treaties which declared the south Arabian Protectorate of Great Britain. The Turks finally withdrew from North Yemen with their defeat at the end of World War I. In 1918 Imam Yahya (a Zaydi Imam) established the Kingdom of Yemen. His eldest son Imam Ahmed succeeded him and stayed in power until his death in September 1962. Ahmed’s son was overthrown by the military who founded the Yemen Arab Republic.

In the British controlled south, an independence movement became more active in the 1960s. In 1967, Aden got its independence and was the capital of the newly formed People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. As the South imposed a Marxist order, it caused massive immigration to the north contributing to ill-will between the two Yemens. It didn’t help that the south was socialist and secular; the north a traditional and tribal Arab society. To the surprise of many, the two Yemens united in 1990 as the Republic of Yemen with the capital in the North’s Sana'a. Equally surprising was the promise of multi-party democracy which was unheard of among the Arabian peninsula states.

Despite this apparent harmony, mutual distrust continued between the north and south. Both sides kept their own armies which led to inevitable conflict. A southern secessionist movement emerged in 1994 but was subdued by the vastly more populated North. Sporadic violence remained a threat through the decade that followed. In 2000 a visiting US naval vessel, the USS Cole, was anchored in Aden harbour for a fuel stop when it was attacked by two suicide bombers in a small inflatable boat. The attack killed 17 US sailors and injured 39 others. In October 2002 extremists attacked the French oil supertanker Limburg off Yemen. Meanwhile tribal violence was escalating between the Sunni Government and the Zaydi northern tribes.

The latest battles with the Zaydi separatists began in January this year. The rebels evicted 45 Yemeni Jews from their houses in Saada province and attacked a Saudi company repairing roads near the Saudi border. Officials estimate there are less than 3,000 rebels but the 30,000 Yemeni strong army has not been able to contain them. While the Young Believers’ Anti-Zionism is well known, their ultimate motive remains unclear.

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