Further Analysis: Concern mounts over Saadah clashes [Archives:2004/764/Front Page]

August 16 2004

The Yemeni government said last week that the fighting between Yemeni forces and Hussein Al-Houthi and his armed supporters is coming to an end.
“Sheikh Hussein Badruddin Al-Houthi and whoever is still with him are living their last breath after the noose has been tightened on them,” said Major General Ali Mohammad Salah to the SABA news agency. “Army and security forces will continue to track them down in their hiding places until they are caught and brought to justice.”
But some are worried about how long the fighting has lasted and the possible consequences in the future.
The remnants of the militants have kept the clashes going for nearly two months and Al-Houthi has yet to be captured. “The capacity of Al-Houthi's fighters must have been a surprise to the government's forces,” said an analyst in Yemen. “These are guerilla tactics that are not easy to deal with and it may take more time to end the fighting.”
Some analysts are worried that if the rebel group, believed to have been between 1,000 and 3,000 followers, is not defeated soon, other groups may emerge.
“If the government forces don't win decisively, it will show that [the government] is weak and this will encourage more groups to pop up,” said Khaled Al-Akwaa, Professor of Public Policy at Sana'a University. “The government must carry out its campaign to defeat the group or make Al-Houthi face justice. It's important at this time for the government to establish law and order across the country.”
Anti-US and anti-Israel sentiment is running high in the Middle East with the US-led occupation in Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts continuing. “If there were no US troops in Iraq and a Palestinian state was established, the motivation behind terrorist groups would drop off considerably,” said one analyst.
Al-Houthi, a leading Zaidi Shiite leader – a minority Muslim sect in Yemen that makes up around 30% of the population – is charged with provoking violent protests against the United States and Israel, leading attacks on government institutions and raiding mosques. He established a group called the “Believing Youth” and is believed to have secretly trained his followers to form an armed militia at his stronghold in the north.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent groups of leading religious scholars and politicians to persuade the cleric to surrender on three separate occasions since the clashes began, but all have failed. Al-Houthi has either said he would rather fight than give himself up or gave the government conditions that were unacceptable.
Since the clashes began, terrorist groups have shown renewed interest in Yemen. In early July, the Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigade, a group linked to Al-Qaeda, said that it would “drag the United States into a third quagmire, that is after Iraq and Afghanistan, and let it be Yemen, God willing.” The group has claimed responsibility for attacks in Iraq, Turkey and the March 11th railway bombings in Madrid.
A month later, a little known Islamic group, Tawhid Wa Al-Hijra (The One Faith and emigration), posted on its website support for Al-Houthi and condemned the Yemeni government because it “opened a country of Muslims to the crusader forces.”
In a bid to avoid other groups emerging, the Yemeni government ordered the overhaul of the country's education system and close down a large number unregistered schools soon after the clashes began. Hundreds of religious schools, many of them unlicensed, are believed to be operating across the country. Analysts believe that radical Islamic teaching, which promotes extremism may take place in these schools. Some fear, however, that the immediate closing of schools focusing on religious studies might lead to a violent reaction or students going underground.
“It is a sensitive issue, and the government made a mistake to allow religious schools to function with a license for years and suddenly decide to close them down,” said a member of the Yemeni parliament. “Some of the schools may react and go underground which is putting oil on a fire.”
Some fear that Yemen's poverty can make the country vulnerable to terrorism. Yemen is the poorest country in the Gulf region. Forty-two percent live below the poverty line while a further 25% may easily slip into poverty in the near future. Between 25% and 35% of the population is out of work.
Abdullah Al-Faqih, Professor of Political Science at Sana'a University, said that if the government does not act soon to reform its economy, “Yemen will undergo periods of instability, conflict and lawlessness. It will be a breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. It will serve as a destabilizing force in the region.”
Another concern is the cost of the clashes. The number of people killed is between 300 and 600. When the government launched a major offensive earlier this month, it was reported that up to 100 government soldiers and rebels were killed. Many families have had to flee their homes near the battle area and Amnesty International has asked the government to investigate the death of innocent civilians due to misguided missiles and artillery fire.
“It has been a shame from the beginning because it isn't fair that so many people have died,” said Mohammed Al-Muttawakil, Assistant Secretary General of Yemen's Popular Forces Union party and former Minister of Supply and Trade. “At the beginning, the situation probably could have been solved in other ways.”