The Tragedy in Yemen

THE outbreak of war in Yemen is tragic enough by itself. Fighting over the past 12 days has been especially ferocious as northern forces, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have tried to secure a quick victory in the south. That effort may fail, since the Army has not yet taken the key southern oil port of Aden. This raises the chances of a protracted, bloody standoff in what is more accurately described as a war for land, money, and power by a core of military leaders on both sides - rather than as simply some ethnic struggle between the tribal north and the Marxist south. As an evacuee from Yemen says, ``The north is probably the principal aggressor, but the south is not a very good victim.''

The Yemeni experience had been a bright spot in the Arab world. The unification of north and south in 1990, the opening of the society, the election of members of parliament, a vigorous and free press - all were examples of the kind of liberal modernization many leaders in the region privately told Western officials would never be possible for Arab society.

In a larger sense, the Yemeni war plays into the hands of conservative forces in the region that would rather not see an example of successful democracy in the Arab world.

The unification of Yemen in 1990 was partly a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, which had supported South Yemen and operated a military base in that strategic zone on the Red Sea.

Prior to its links with the Soviet Union, the south had been under British and then Egyptian influence. The north, a mountainous and more tribal region, had been under Ottoman influence followed by a series of strict Islamic Imams. Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia was a supporter of the north.

Social tensions in a unified Yemen had always been present. The south under Ali Salem al-Baidh had attempted to retain much control over its former region; Mr. Saleh had pressed for more control of the entire country. Southerners felt aggrieved by the manner in which Yemen's scanty oil profits were being wrested from their grip. In the past year, the assassinations of southern socialist members of parliament - with no arrests made by the government - were a major source of tension.

At the moment, outside diplomacy seems unwelcome; even United Nations intervention would probably be counterproductive. Yemen is a tragedy of a type all too familiar in the post-cold-war world.

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