In late January, a new round of fighting broke out between the Shabab al-Muminayn (The Believing Youth) and Yemeni forces in the northern governorate of Sa’dah. Government sources put the combined death toll at nearly 100, although the actual numbers are likely far higher. Like much of what surrounds the lengthy conflict, the circumstances that led to this latest series of clashes are lost in a maze of half-truths and disinformation spread by both sides. Yet the spark seems to have been the decision by a group of roughly 50 Jews to seek refuge in a local hotel, where they would be protected from the Shabab. The government claims that the Shabab were harassing the Jews, while the Shabab counter with allegations that the Jews were selling wine to Muslims. In truth, little was needed to reignite the conflict, which has been raging since June 2004. If it had not been this incident, another excuse would have been found to justify the renewed fighting.
Yemen has also sought to strengthen regional and international opinion against the Shabab by stoking fears of Iranian involvement in the conflict. The Shabab, which are known in the official press as the al-Houthi rebels—an insulting term that is derived from the name of the group’s first leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who was killed in September 2004—are comprised of Zaydi Muslims, a Shiite sect that has traditionally been closer to Sunni Islam than it has to the Twelver Shiism that is practiced in Iran.
Yemen has made similar allegations in the past, but given the current mood of anti-Shiite feelings among the country’s neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it has stressed its claims much more during the past few weeks than it has in previous years. Part of this is a desire by Yemen to link its internal problems to regional issues in the hopes of securing financial aid.
Yemen has long been aware that any steps toward possible entry into the GCC and most aid from its member countries are contingent upon security issues. Not surprisingly, the current accusations were first made public during President Ali Abdullah Salih’s trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he was lobbying for more aid following last November’s donor conference in London. The charges were given more weight in the region following an al-Jazeera story that asked whether Iranian involvement in the conflict was real or imaginary (al-Jazeera, Feburary 6). Days later, Yemen’s Supreme Defense Council met under Salih’s leadership and threatened to reduce ties with Iran and Libya to their barest essentials if the two countries did not cease meddling in Yemen’s internal affairs (al-Jazeera, February 11).
Yemen has asked Libya to extradite Yahya al-Houthi, the brother of both the current leader of the Shabab, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, as well as its founder, Hussein al-Houthi (al-Jazeera, February 16). Salih has also issued the third, and what he says is the final, 48-hour ultimatum to the rebels to surrender their weapons and turn themselves over to security forces (al-Hayat, February 18). Yet, like most of the previous mediation attempts and truce negotiations, this latest demand will likely be ignored.