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Fragile peace in volatile north of Yemen

Yemen’s ‘Death to America’ rebels have brought tentative calm but tension and confrontation are never far away

Image Credit: EPA
Suspected al-Qaeda militants carry the body of a fellow following air strikes in Bayda province, Yemen, 10 March 2012.

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 Al  Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite 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 hide-aways, the Al Houthis’ dominance is now unquestionable in the provincial capital of Saada. The government managed to maintain control 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 Al Houthis run checkpoints undisturbed, controlling the vast majority of Saada and parts of adjacent provinces.

Western diplomats worried

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 criticised members of Yemen’s current government for their cooperation with the US, capitalising 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 Al 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 Al Houthi governance, saying the rebels’ rule has led 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 Ahmad, a businessman in Saada overseeing construction at his new soap factory. “But now, Saada is at peace, and we can imagine a better future.”

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

Tensions between the Al Houthis and local salafis erupted in months of fierce clashes last autumn; a confrontation between supporters of the Al Houthis and backers of a rival Zaidi cleric left one dead last month. Politicians and tribal leaders have watched the Al Houthis’ rise anxiously, characterising them as a destabilising presence operating against the best interests of the country.

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

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

Sporadic clashes between supporters and opponents of the Al Houthis in tribal areas between Saada and Sana’a 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.”