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.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File
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.

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. 

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. 

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

“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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