Yemen's 'Death to America' rebels bring calm to northern Yemen

The Houthis, a Shiite rebel group that battled the government in northern Yemen for years, has brought stability and investment to its territory. Its rise could threaten US-Yemen cooperation.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File
Members of the Shiite rebel al-Houthi group sit while guarding a group meeting in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 16.

Barely a decade ago, the Old City of Saada was tentatively placed on the list to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once an impeccably preserved relic of medieval Arabia, the ancient settlement is now largely in ruins. Centuries-old homes lie wrecked, their mud brick construction crumbling. Bullet holes pock-mark the walls of ancient mosques. 

For many here, the irreplaceable loss of one of Yemen’s most prominent historical sites exemplifies the senseless destruction wrought upon the region during years of clashes between government forces and the Houthis, a Zaydi Shi’a rebel group that has battled Yemeni troops and allied tribal fighters since 2004.

While a tentative calm has been restored in recent months, the violence continues to cast a pall over this rugged mountain town, which now lies under the effective control of the rebels. Once forced to operate largely from secluded mountain hideaways, the Houthis’ dominance is now unquestionable in the provincial capital of Saada. The government managed to maintain control of the city throughout most of the years of fighting, but in the power vacuum that emerged as former President Ali Abdullah Saleh struggled to hold on to power in 2011, the Houthis were able to wrest control from government hands. 

Now signs bearing the group’s slogan, “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Power to Islam,” pepper the streets alongside tributes to fighters killed during the years of conflict. While government troops continue to man their posts, armed Houthis run checkpoints undisturbed, controlling the vast majority of Saada and parts of adjacent provinces.

Life has seemingly returned to normal now. Markets in the province bustle and newly constructed hotels welcome guests. But the group's bellicose anti-American rhetoric and unrestrained criticism of the US government's policies in Yemen worry Western diplomats. Houthi leaders have sharply criticized members of Yemen's current government for their cooperation with the United States, capitalizing on rising anti-American sentiment in the country. 

"We're not against a relationship based on mutual benefits and respect," says Saleh Habra, the head of the Houthi's political bureau. "But we must reject America's policies, which are meant to create chaos in Yemen and the region."

Many residents expressed enthusiastic approval of Houthi governance, saying the rebels’ rule has lead to security and stability. And as the frequent sight of construction attests, some here are confident enough about the current calm to invest, pouring money into infrastructure projects in the impoverished province.

“We’ve seen so many difficult years,” says Abu Ahmed, a businessman in Saada overseeing construction work at his new soap factory. “But now, Saada is at peace, and we can actually imagine a better future.”

Still, reminders of the past are ever-present. The war resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and bombed out buildings dot both the city of Saada and surrounding villages. Few families here were untouched – over 20,000 people were killed in the fighting and tens of thousands of Yemenis were displaced. And while Houthi leaders claim overwhelming popular support in Saada, the group’s rise has not been without opposition.

Tensions between the Houthis and local salafis, an austere branch of Sunni Islam, erupted in months of fierce clashes last fall; a violent confrontation between supporters of the Houthis and backers of a rival Zaydi cleric left one dead earlier this month. Yemeni politicians and tribal leaders have watched the Houthis' rise with trepidation, characterizing them as a destabilizing presence operating against the best interests of the country.

Houthi leaders say they are committed to maintaining the peace. But the group remains heavily armed, appearing ready for any coming confrontation. 

Despite the current break in violence in Saada, friction between the Houthis and numerous local actors – from Sunni Islamists to political and tribal adversaries who aligned with the government against them – remain unresolved.  And while many here optimistically put faith in the current calm, others confided that, as long as the situation stays tense, there’s ample reason to fear that it will be short lived.

Sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Houthis in tribal areas between Saada and Sanaa have left many Yemenis anxious about a resumption of large-scale fighting, which would likely derail Yemen's tenuous post-Saleh transition and throwing much of the nation into chaos.

“There may be peace now,” said Ali al-Quhom, a Houthi representative in Saada, “but those who fought us in the past still want war.”

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