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Yemenis suspect Iran's hand in rise of Shiite rebels

The growing influence of Yemen's Houthis, a group of Shiite rebels, has disrupted the long amicable Sunni-Shiite relationship here, with Sunnis suspecting Iranian interference.

By Adam BaronCorrespondent / October 30, 2012

Boys run past a sign painted on a wall with the main motto of the Shiite rebel al-Houthi group, in Old Sanaa, Yemen, September 30.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File

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Rayda, Yemen

While the graffiti on the walls of Rayda’s bullet-scarred Awadin Mosque condemns the United States and Israel, the clashes that briefly transformed this agrarian town into a war zone were fought between local foes. 

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The fighting in Rayda was just the latest flare-up in a series of violent clashes in Amran and neighboring provinces that have pitted backers of the Houthi movement against their largely Sunni Islamist foes. And while its roots seem to be local political maneuvering, many here see the tensions as a result of Iranian interference in northern Yemen

Yemen’s far north has long been wracked by fighting between Houthi rebels and various foes. From 2004 to 2010, the Houthis were the target of a series of offensives launched by the Yemeni government and their tribal fighter allies, who saw the Houthis as an Iranian-backed group intent on destabilizing the country.

When the government's control over much of Yemen weakened during last year’s uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis were able to effectively gain control over the northern province of Saada and areas of neighboring provinces. Even in the capital, Sanaa, the Houthis have emerged defiantly. Graffiti bearing the group’s vitriolic slogan, “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam,” is a frequent sight on the capital’s streets. 

Representatives and supporters of the Houthis characterize the group’s growth as a natural result of their widespread support, saying the group has gained the trust of Yemenis due to its commitment to clean governance and its uncompromising opposition to the current government’s alliance with the United States’ government.

But many Yemenis insist that the Houthis’ gains can be attributed to outside players, characterizing them as a pawn of Iran, citing longstanding accusations that they are receiving funding and possibly arms from the Islamic Republic.

“You can see Iran’s hands in the growth of the Houthis,” says one Yemeni politician, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “It’s a threat to Yemen, it’s a threat to Saudi Arabia and it’s a threat to American interests.” 

Squaring off with the Saudis

The Houthis' strident anti-American rhetoric has raised the concerns of Western diplomats, while the group’s power base on the border with Saudi Arabia – and staunch opposition to its Sunni Wahabbi ideology – have prompted accusations that they represent a direct threat to the oil-rich kingdom. 

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