FaithWorld

Factbox: Roots of Yemen’s conflict with northern Shi’ite rebels

February 12, 2010
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A Yemeni soldier aims at rebel targets in this undated photo released by the Yemeni army on 25 Jan 2010.

Yemen announced a truce with northern Shi’ite rebels on Thursday, aimed at ending a war that has raged on-and-off since 2004 and that drew in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, a Yemeni official said.

The conflict with the northern rebels, who complain of social, religious and economic discrimination in the southern Arabian state, intensified last year. A truce was to start at midnight on Thursday, the official said.

The Yemeni rebels are known as the Houthis after the family name of their leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. Here is some background about the Houthi rebels:

WHO ARE THE HOUTHIS?

* The Houthis, like most tribesmen in Yemen’s northern highlands, belong to the Zaidi sect of Shi’ite Islam, whose Hashemite line ruled for 1,000 years before a 1962 revolution.
* Zaidis, who make up about a third of Yemen’s 23 million people, have coexisted easily with majority Sunnis in the past, but Badr al-Din al-Houthi, a cleric from the northern province of Saada, promoted Zaidi revivalism in the 1970s, playing on fears that Saudi-influenced Salafis threatened Zaidi identity.
* After north and south Yemen united in 1990, the movement spawned the al-Haq party and the Houthi-led Believing Youth group. Houthi’s son, Hussein, was elected to parliament in 1993. Saada remained neglected economically by the Sanaa government.

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A grab from a video released by the Houthi rebel group on 26 Aug 2009 shows members of the group standing on a tank seized from the Yemeni army.

* President Ali Abdullah Saleh, himself a Zaidi, at first used the Houthis to counter-balance the Salafi groups. The government later portrayed Believing Youth as a fundamentalist group, out to subvert the state and restore the Zaidi imamate.
* After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, Saleh declared support for Washington’s “war on terror”, in part to enlist U.S. support against the Houthis, whom Yemeni officials accused of having links to al Qaeda, Iran or Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
* The Houthis say the government, with U.S. and Saudi backing, is targeting Zaidis in general, forcing them to take up arms to defend their villages against oppression.

HOW HAS THE CONFLICT UNFOLDED?

* Violence began after Houthis embarrassed Saleh by shouting “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews, victory to Islam” in his presence in a Saada mosque in 2003.
* Security forces killed Hussein al-Houthi in September 2004, only to see further rounds of fighting erupt in the mountains around Saada city, each more violent than the last.
* Qatar brokered a ceasefire in June 2007 and sponsored a peace deal signed in February 2008, but clashes soon resumed. Saleh unilaterally declared the war over in July 2008. Full-scale fighting resumed a year later.

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Saudi soldiers near the Khoba frontline border with Yemen, 27 Jan 2010/Fahad Shadeed

* In November, Saudi Arabia attacked the Houthis after a rebel cross-border incursion. The rebels, who accused Riyadh of allowing Yemeni troops to use its territory to launch attacks on them, said Saudi air strikes mostly targeted civilians.
* Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah told Kuwait’s al-Seyassah daily on Dec. 26 that the last infiltrators had been expelled.
* The rebels offered a ceasefire on Jan. 25 and promised to withdraw from Saudi territory. The Saudis declared victory on Jan. 27. They have acknowledged losing 131 dead in the conflict. The rebels say Saudi air strikes have continued.
* On Jan. 30, Houthi offered to accept government ceasefire terms. The government rejected the rebel leader’s proposal, saying he must also promise to end attacks on Saudi Arabia and drop a demand that Yemeni army operations stop first.
* On Feb. 11, Yemen announced it had agreed on a ceasefire that was to begin at midnight and was aimed at ending the war with the rebels.

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