Houthis look to establish Shiite state along Saudi border
Ironically, the area had witnessed a peaceful period from the beginning of last year after the warring parties signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2010. The area enjoyed increased security and stability for more than a year – something that has been lost in the larger cities of Yemen including the capital Sana’a and Taiz, as the country erupted in popular protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.
But the situation started changing dramatically in Sa’ada in May after armed clashes erupted in the neighboring governorate of Al-Jawf between the Shiite Houthis and the Sunni local tribesmen.
Taking advantage of the nationwide insecurity that has accompanied the anti-Saleh protests, the Houthis have worked hard and expanded their military operations with the aim of setting up their own minor state on the border with Saudi Arabia, according to a new report released last week.
Saudi Arabia, a regional Sunni heavyweight, was involved in fierce battles with the Houthi-Shiite group in late 2009 during the sixth round of war between the Yemeni army and the rebels. The Yemeni army accused the rebels of receiving Iranian support to extend Shiite influence into the Arabian Peninsula.
The map of the Houthis’ proposed state absorbs governorates from Marib and Al-Jawf in the east of Yemen, a strategic oil area, to Midi port on the Red Sea in the west of Yemen, said the Abaad Studies and Research Center report released on November 21.
The Houthis and the Salafis
The Houthis have been blockading the Damaj Salafi area in Sa’ada for over 40 days after a letter, allegedly written by the principal of the Dar Al-Hadeeth Salafi School, Yahya Al-Hajoori, was leaked. It urged the commander of Yemen’s security forces and Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis.
Therefore, the Houthis have imposed a siege on the Salafi area where around 7,000 students of Yemeni and foreign nationalities, including women and children, study the Quran and other Islamic teachings. The Houthis are demanding the Salafis surrender their military positions to the defected army or any other non-Salafi allied forces.
Last week, a 20-year-old woman was killed by a Houthi sniper’s shot and her child injured in the Damaj area, where the Houthis have recently deployed their snipers on the surrounding mountains, according to a student from the school.
One of the students was shot in the back by Houthi sniper fire, causing him serious injury while he was washing his clothes last Sunday morning, while another was injured in the leg last Monday.
The Houthis took control of Sa’ada in March after a sixth round of war ended with a ceasefire agreement in Feb, 2010. Despite this, 2011 has seen sporadic clashes between the Houthis and Sunni tribesmen loyal to the Islah Islamic party in Al-Jawf, Hajja and Amran.
The report explained that the clashes between the Houthis and tribesmen in Yemen’s northern governorates have escalated with the Houthis’ continued, expanding military operations.
“There are signs that tribesmen in Hajja, Amran and Al-Jawf prepare to confront the Houthis’ armed men in which confrontations between the two sides may extend to reach the Houthis’ hometown in Sa’ada, utilizing the misgivings of Saudi Arabia and the American-Europeans’ priorities after the Arab Spring revolutions,” the report said.
The report explained further that Saleh’s regime utilizes different currents to create chaos through nationwide proxy conflicts to stay in to power
“The military movements and the designations of new leaders to brigades in Sa’ada, Al-Jawf, Abyan, Al-Dale, Hodeida and Hadramout indicate that the regime works on creating chaos inside military camps in preparation to surrender northern areas to the Houthis, the middle areas to Al-Qaeda organization and the southern areas to secessionist groups,” the report said.
A student in Dammaj, Sa'ada, whose Salafi school stood alongside incumbent President Saleh against the youth revolution said the Houthis are taking control of several districts in Hajja.
"The ruling party allied with the Houthis against the Islah party in Hajja in which they took over districts easily with the help of the General people Congress (GPC)," he said.
When the Yemen Times asked the Houthi spokesperson why they had blockaded the Damaj Salafi area in Sa'ada, he replied simply: "We are defending ourselves."
But Dr. Ahmed Al-Daghashi, a professor of Islamic philosophy and an expert on Islamic groups at the University of Sana'a, argued against this. "The recent clashes between the Houthis and the Islahis in Al-Jawf and Hajja show only that they [Houthis] are not true when they say that they are defending themselves, but are only expanding their control to bring back the imamate rule," he said.
Houthis and the Islah Party
There are contradictions in the Houthi relationship with the Islah party. While they fight in the northern governorates, they are united with the Islahis in change squares, demanding the removal of Saleh’s regime. The Houthis and the Islahis also have representatives inside the opposition coalition known as the JMP.
At the same time both sides are involved in armed conflict in Al-Jawf and Hajja as each attempts to position itself as the more influential body after Saleh leaves.
Despite their common political aim of toppling Saleh, the Houthis and Islahis are ideologically different since Houthis are Shiites and the Islahis are Sunnis.
The Islah party welcomed and accepted Saleh’s signature on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) power transfer deal signed on November 23, which grants Saleh and his associates immunity, the Houthis rejected it and demanded the continuation of the revolution until Saleh both leaves and is brought to prosecution.
Houthis and the Southern Movement
The Houthis as a militant group first surfaced in 2004 in the north of Yemen, having extended their internal alliance with either traditional political parties or other informal groups such as the Southern Movement, which emerged in 2007 demanding independence for south Yemen.
The Houthi relationship with the Southern Movement has blossomed and continues to grow amidst the popular uprising calling for an end to Saleh’s regime. Yemen’s ongoing conflict has enabled members of the Southern Movement to travel easily to Sa'ada and meet their Houthi allies.
"Leaders of the Southern Movement have visited the Houthi leader in Sa'ada in which the latter promised the secessionists funds and military training for their followers," the Abaad report said.
But while the Southern Movement and the Houthis have a common goal to topple Saleh’s regime, ideologically they have differences; the Houthis are Shiites whose ancestors ruled north Yemen for over 1,000 years under the imamate rule, while the Southern Movement is a mixture of socialists, Salafis and former Jihadists, most of whom are Sunnis.
During the ten-month uprising this year, the Houthis and the Southern Movement were issuing similar positions towards a number of political developments, including the rejection of the National Council of the Revolution, formed on August 17. But it is not known how they will cooperate once their common goal has been achieved.
A difficult job ahead
The JMP opposition coalition is expected to lead a government in the coming three months, but it is still unclear how such a cabinet will manage the country amidst expanding armed ideological and political conflict in most northern areas of Yemen.
This conflict is taking place in heavily armed areas where most residents possess at least a Kalashnikov and other organized groups possess artillery, mortars, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons.
While the Houthis may hold contradictory positions with many political factions in the country, it is still uncertain how this will play out in the coming months amidst Yemen’s turbulent political weather.
On a regional level, Saudi Arabia will not allow a Shiite state to be established on its southern border. It proved this with the sacrifice of 400 Saudi troops in late 2009 to prevent the Shiite expansion.
On an international level, the USA and the UK have not yet considered the Houthis as a threat despite aggressive slogans repeated in their political activities, stating: “Death to America, death to Israel, victory to Islam.”