Unsteady peace in war-torn north Yemen

A three-year war in Sa’ada, Yemen generated thousands of casualities, wide-scale destruction, tens of thousands of internal refugees and cost upwards of a billion dollars. Progress toward implementing a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Qatar reached an impasse this week as both the Yemeni military and several thousand Shia rebels refused to abandon their positions. Reports of a prison massacre are heightening tensions amid sporadic skirmishes in the province, which borders Saudi Arabia.

Violence flared at the Fakhra Central Prison in Sa’ada in early March. Sheik Salah Habra, the rebels’ representative, announced seven rebel prisoners were killed and others shot, beaten, and tortured. The prisoners had been chanting anti-American slogans when the assault began.

The Sa’ada War began in 2003 when a Shia youth group, led by cleric and Member of Parliament Hussain al Houthi, staged vocal demonstrations at the onset of the US invasion of Iraq. Sporadic clashes with security forces grew to armed conflict in 2004. Hussain al Houthi was slain and his brother Abdelmalik assumed operational leadership of the rebellion.

The fighting intensified in 2005. A settlement mediated in 2006 failed in part because the security forces continued targeting the rebels after amnesty. The Houthi rebels retreated from their villages to the mountaintops. When the third round of warfare began in January 2007, the rebels were dug-in and well-armed with heavy weapons. The regime declared all-out war.

The Yemeni government charged that the rebels seek to reinstate the Imamate that established centuries of Hashemite rule over north Yemen until 1962’s republican revolution. The government also alleged the rebels received funding from both Libya and Iran. Yemen routinely describes the conflict as a battle against terrorists. The rebellion, however, is a domestic and political conflict arising from the widespread public disenfranchisement associated with Yemen’s authoritarian system. The rebels do not target civilians.

As in the earlier campaigns, in 2007 the Yemeni military blockaded food and medicine to Sa’ada, a governorate of 700,000 people. The military bombed cities and villages with mortars, rockets, and Katyusha missiles, damaging thousands of homes, mosques, and schools. In April, land mines injured 60. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated a minimum of 50,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting in 2007, many without shelter. Journalists and humanitarian aid were prohibited because of security concerns, the regime said, and tens of thousands of civilians remain beyond reach.

A province-wide survey sponsored by the UN Children’s Fund had found that 92 percent of sampled children had witnessed armed conflict. Dozens of male children were subjected to arbitrary arrest and are imprisoned along with their relatives. Many detainees, including the children, were beaten. Shia teachers and other government workers were punitively fired.

The military inducted 8,000 Salafi tribesmen, some young teens, who were sent to the front lines. The Defense Ministry publicized a fatwa in early 2007 declaring the rebels apostates. Sectarian media incitement against the rebels began in 2004 and continues into 2008.

The Yemeni government also called on Sunni Islamic extremist groups, including the Aden Abayan Islamic Army, to support its military operations. The AAIA trained the tribal fighters and fought on behalf of the regime, according to local reports. A least 1,000 Yemeni soldiers were killed and several thousand were wounded in the last round of war. The rebel and civilian casualty figures are unclear.

Both sides now charge the terms of the July 2007 cease-fire agreement have not been fulfilled. Sheik Haba reported that the 380 rebels the government said it recently released from jail were in fact unaffiliated civilians released in 2007. The blockade on food to the region has not been lifted. The agreement requires the rebels to give up their medium and heavy weapons and abandon their mountaintop positions. They refuse to disarm and abandon their camps until military units withdraw from the rebels’ farms, homes, and villages. Rebel leaders have not left Yemen for exile in Qatar as outlined in the peace deal.

As the process reached an impasse in March, the judiciary resumed the trials of alleged rebel “terror cells” although a general amnesty was another condition. Qatari mediation is ongoing. The mediation team, however, consists of several dignitaries, and no provisions have been made for a neutral peacekeeping force to supervise disengagement. The influence of powerful regime-affiliated weapons merchants continues to have a negative effect on the peace process.

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  • matt says:

    Always insightful and interesting updates from such a facinating Arab country that is hardly ever reported on or examined in any depth. Great article-

  • Michael says:

    Yes, always enjoyed Bill’s links in the past to your site as well. It is good to keep perspective and eye on all areas in the regional conflict.

  • Jane says:

    Thanks very much!


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