Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 7
imamate, though there is no hard evidence.
The conflict reportedly was triggered when, in January 2003, Believing Youth militants shouted “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!”5 in a Saada mosque in President Ali Abdallah Salih’s presence.6 After failed reconciliation attempts between Salih and Husein al-Huthi as well as continued demonstrations – including in the capital city’s Grand Mosque – the government in June 2004 sought to arrest al-Huthi in his stronghold in Saada’s Haydan district. Fighting ensued, persisting until security forces killed al-Huthi on 10 September 2004.7
That death did not end the conflict. Instead, the war experienced four additional rounds, each centred in Saada governorate, more intense than its predecessor and with low-level fighting continuing in between. Most affected was Haydan district, southwest of Saada city. Some zones remained under rebel control even after the fifth round.
During the first round, which lasted from 18 June to 10 September 2004, fighting took place chiefly in the Marran Mountains, around 30km south west of Saada city, where Husein al-Huthi had taken refuge. From the outset, the government and its media accused the Believing Youth of allegiance to the Lebanon-based movement Hizbollah and Iran and of aiming to restore the Zaydi imamate.8 Al-Huthi denied the
5 “Allahu akbar! Al-mawt li-Amrika! Al-mawt li-Israil! Al-laana ala al-yahud! Al-nasr lil-Islam!” On the slogans and their origin, see Al-Balagh (Sanaa weekly of Zaydi orientation), 10 March 2009.
6 Crisis Group interview, official of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and member of the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura, second legislative chamber, whose members are appointed by the president), Sanaa, 12 January 2009. In a July 2004 speech, President Salih explained that while the slogans themselves were not a problem, insofar as he also frequently criticised U.S. and Israeli foreign policies, they harmed national interests. 26 September (Sanaa weekly published by the armed forces), 15 July 2004.
7 Iris Glosemeyer, “Local Conflict, Global Spin: An Uprising in the Yemeni Highlands”, Middle East Report, no. 232 (September 2004).
8 Crisis Group interview, Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister for security and defence and former interior minister (until 2008), Sanaa, 11 January 2009. President Salih accused the rebels of raising Hizbollah’s yellow flag rather than Yemen’s republican one. Lisa Wedeen, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (Chicago, 2008), pp. 153-157. Official media levied similar accusations. See Shaun Overton, “Understanding the Second Houthi Rebellion in Yemen”, Terrorism Monitor, vol. 3, no. 12 (June 2005).
allegations in a 26 June 2004 open letter in which he asserted loyalty to the president and the republic. He claimed his differences stemmed solely from the government’s pro-U.S. stance and Saudi policy in Yemen.9 Following al-Huthi’s death, the government declared a unilateral end to the fighting. However, most issues were left unresolved, including both longstanding grievances and newly created ones, such as prisoners held by both sides.
The second round, which took place between March and May 2005, began with a series of accusations and counter-accusations. The government charged Husein’s father, Badr al-Din al-Huthi, and Abdallah al-Ruzami, a former parliament member, of seeking to resume the insurgency. Badr al-Din criticised Salih’s unwillingness to end the conflict and argued that Husein’s objective merely had been to defend Islam.10 Salih accused the opposition and particularly its two Zaydi-based parties, al-Haqq (of which Husein al-Huthi and Abdallah al-Ruzami were former members) and the Union of Popular Forces (Ittihad al-Qiwa al-Shaabiya), of supporting the rebels.11 The government began portraying the Huthis as terrorists responsible for small-scale attacks against officials and soldiers in Sanaa and claimed they had planned to kidnap foreign ambassadors.12 The ensuing clashes were heaviest north and west of Saada, in Majz, Sahar and Baqim districts, where the rebels found support, and mountainous terrain slowed the army’s advance.
Although the government claimed victory and announced an end to operations in May 2005, low-intensity fighting continued. This eventually prompted a third round, which raged from late 2005 until early 2006. It started as a confrontation between pro-government tribesmen (some belonging to Sheikh Abdallah al-Awjari’s Hamdan tribe) and tribal fighters supporting the rebels, suggesting that tribal feuds gradually were growing in importance. The fighting also saw the emergence of Husein al-Huthi’s brothers, Abd-al-Malik and Yahya, as new rebel leaders.13 The government faced strong pressure to settle the conflict before the September 2006 presidential and local elections, even if only temporarily. It released
9 In July, Huthi leaders accused the Saudi air force of bombing villages to support the Yemeni army, a charge Riyadh denied. Andrew McGregor, “Shi’ite Insurgency in Yemen: Iranian Intervention or Mountain Revolt?”, Terrorism Monitor, vol. 2, no. 16 (August 2004).
10 Al-Wasat (Sanaa weekly), 9 March 2005.
11 Al-Ahram Weekly (Egyptian weekly), 19 May 2005.
12 Crisis Group interview, Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister for security and defence, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.
13 Yahya al-Huthi is also a parliament member from the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). He was a mediator during the war’s first round.