Al Houthis Yemen_2
Al Houthi militiamen chant slogans during rally in Sana'a, Yemen, on August 22, 2020. Image Credit: AP

Washington: Al Houthi rebels in Yemen will be stripped of a US terrorist designation next week, the State Department said Friday, despite a recent surge of violence that officials said may have been carried out with Iran’s help.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the designation would be formally revoked Tuesday, in “recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.” It was imposed January 19, the day before President Donald Trump left office, in a final attempt to cut off funding, weapons and other support for Iran’s proxy fight against a Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia in a six-year civil war.

Blinken said the terrorist designation instead threatened to deepen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by denying civilians food, fuel and other basic commodities, given its chilling effect on importers who would have faced criminal penalties should the goods fall into Al Houthi hands. Most of the food in Yemen is imported, and Al Houthis control strategic ports as well as the country’s capital, Sana’a.

Yet in the week since the Biden administration signalled it would lift the designation, Blinken has had to condemn the militia for an attack at an international airport in Abha, Saudi Arabia, that hit a civilian airliner Wednesday.

That same day, Mike Pompeo, who issued the designation as Trump’s secretary of state, said on Twitter that revoking it was “a gift to the Iranians & will allow the Houthis to continue to foment terror around the world.”

In a statement Friday, Blinken said that Iran had a hand in “many” of the threats that Al Houthis pose to Yemen’s neighbours in the Middle East, and he pledged to “remain committed to helping US partners in the Gulf defend themselves.” He called the Saudi foreign minister twice over the past week and dispatched the new US special envoy for Yemen policy, Timothy Lenderking, to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for meetings.

Blinken also said that US sanctions issued during Barack Obama’s administration against three Al Houthi leaders would remain in place, although he stripped them of individual designations as global terrorists.

He said the United States “remains clear-eyed” about the rebel movement’s threats and violence, including its attacking US allies, kidnapping American citizens, diverting humanitarian aid and repressing Yemeni civilians.

The Houthis’ “actions and intransigence prolong this conflict and exact serious humanitarian costs,” said Blinken, urging a political and peaceful resolution to the war as “the only means to durably end the humanitarian crisis afflicting the people of Yemen.”