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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.

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The Houthis have battled Saudi troops in the past. In 2009, fighting briefly spread to southern areas of the Saudi border province of Jizan, and regardless of whether the group is receiving arms from abroad, many stress that the scrappy but skilled tribal guerrillas remain a force to be reckoned with. But the Houthis and their allies deny that they’re receiving funding, insisting they want to maintain the current calm, which has brought a period of relative prosperity to the territory

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“We’ve gone to Saudi Arabia and told them we want to make peace,” said de facto Saada governor Faris Manaa, a former ruling party member and reputed arms dealer who was appointed by a Houthi-dominated council after his Saleh-allied predecessor fled the province last March. “Our hand is open to them, but even after a year and a half, they still haven’t replied.” 

Sectarianism rears its head

While its roots appear to be political, the tension has been accompanied with a sharp upsurge in sectarian sentiment.

The Houthis draw from the Zaydi Shiite branch of Islam that is found almost exclusively in northern Yemen. Tensions between Yemeni Sunnis and Zaydi Shiites were traditionally minimal; they have many similarities when it comes to doctrine and jurisprudence, much more so than the predominant Twelver branch followed by Shiites in places like Iran and Iraq.

But some here have painted the uptick in tensions in starkly sectarian terms, characterizing them as part of a regional battle between Sunnis and Shiites that has effectively transformed Yemen into a battlefield in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia

“The Houthis are part of a single movement,” says Hussein al-Malahi, the field commander of an anti-Houthi militia formed by Sunni tribal leaders in the Amran province, which lies between Saada and Sanaa. “Their ultimate goal is nothing less than the transfer of the Kaaba from Mecca to Karbala," referring to the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam, and the Shiite holy city of Karbala in Iraq.

Regardless of the intensifying rhetoric and issues of foreign support, many observers argue that the Houthis represent an indisputably important segment of the Yemeni polity. As Yemen’s post-Saleh government aims to bring the country towards stability, they say, the Houthis’ incorporation into the process will be key; due to their significant base of support and power positions, they cannot be ignored

“Most Houthis are genuinely motivated, even if they get support from outside,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “There’s no way there can be a political settlement in Yemen without the Houthis; we cannot move forward in Yemen unless the Houthis are taken into account.”


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