Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 8
prisoners (including one of Husein al-Huthi’s other brothers), and the president named a new Saada governor, Yahya al-Shami, considered more accommodating than his predecessor. These steps, which indicated government willingness to find a peaceful solution, led to the conflict’s temporary suspension.
According to the government and its tribal allies, the fourth round (February-June 2007) was sparked by Huthi threats against the al-Salem Jewish community in Saada, an allegation the Huthis deny.14 Fighting picked up and spread to different districts, including outside Saada governorate, as the government sought new recruits and encouraged involvement by tribesmen and militants from other regions.
The round ended with the help of Qatari mediation. During a May 2007 visit to Yemen, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, pledged his country’s financial support for the reconstruction of much of Saada governorate if the parties ended the war. On 16 June, government and rebels reached a ceasefire. Despite sporadic clashes, they signed a formal agreement in Doha on 2 February 2008.
It was not to last. The government accused Huthi militants of violating the agreement by two violent attacks, though Huthis rejected the claim.15 Fighting spread to the Bani Hushaysh area, north of Sanaa, where it drew in the Republican Guards headed by the president’s son, Ahmad Ali Salih. Heavy fighting also occurred in Saada city and in the northern part of Amran governorate. Militias affiliated with the Hashid tribal confederation fought alongside the national army, both allegedly financed by Saudi Arabia. On 17 July 2008, the 30th anniversary of his rule, the president announced a unilateral ceasefire which is variously attributed to his fear that the situation could spin out of control, domestic mediation or heightened U.S. and EU criticism of the humanitarian situation in Saada governorate.16
Fighting may have stopped, but it is far more likely a pause than an end. Actors on all sides expect violence
14 Al-Quds al-Arabi (pan-Arab daily published in London), 22 January 2007, and Marib Press (independent information website), 25 January 2007.
15 Al-Thawri (Yemeni Socialist Party weekly), 31 July 2008. The first was the April 2008 assassination of Salih al-Hindi, a GPC parliament member from Saada governorate. Al-Jazeera International website, 19 April 2008. The second was the 2 May attack against Saada’s Bin Salman Mosque, which killed eighteen people, including six military officers. Al-Wasat, 7 May 2008.
16 Crisis Group interviews, civil society activist, Sanaa, 8 January 2009; Zaydi scholar, Sanaa, 17 January 2009; and Western diplomat, Sanaa, January 2009.
to resume and a sixth round to begin in coming weeks or months. Since March 2009, tensions have been mounting and clashes repeatedly have occurred between army and rebels. There is no clear agreement between the parties, accumulated grievances remain largely unaddressed, skirmishes persist,17 and few of the principal belligerents appear willing to compromise.18
While the war by and large is localised and at comparatively low levels, important spikes of violence have occurred, including air bombardments. Videos released on the internet by the rebels and human rights organisations suggest widespread destruction of homes, schools and mosques. International human rights organisations have noted with alarm the existence of a dire humanitarian situation that includes high numbers of internally displaced – some 130,000 by mid-2008, although most are likely to have returned to their villages after the July ceasefire – as well as indiscriminate, extrajudicial detentions, especially of Hashemites and people from Saada.19 Government officials deny their forces target civilians or forcibly displace them based on ethnic, tribal or religious background.20 Others say the rebels, too, are guilty of human rights
17 For example, six soldiers were killed in clashes with Huthi militants in Ghamir district (45km west of Saada city) in early March 2009. Sahwa.net (information website of the Al-Islah party), 8 March 2009. Information on such clashes, which have been frequent even in times of “peace”, is scarce and often confusing due to a dearth of independent reporting. The identity of those involved and their links to either government or rebels is uncertain. Both sides at times have claimed that tribal feuds in fact were related to the Saada conflict.
18 Crisis Group interviews, Sanaa, January-March 2009. A Zaydi scholar said, “the state wants war and so do the Huthis”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 17 January 2009.
19 “Invisible Civilians: The Challenge of Humanitarian Access in Yemen’s Forgotten War”, Human Rights Watch, November 2008, www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/11/18/invisible-civilians-0.
20 Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, director of the Bureau of National Security and presidential office, Sanaa, 14 January 2009.