U.S. Senses Threat From Iran in North Yemen, a New Hot Spot
Yaseen Sultan’s dark brown eyes welled up when he recounted the moment before he and his family fled their home.
Bullets were flying through the house, shells exploding in the street as Shia Muslim rebels battled Sunni tribesmen in Yemen’s remote northern highlands. The 14-year-old boy was so scared, he says, he threw up.
Yemen is beset by three insurgencies, two in the south and one in the north, which borders Saudi Arabia. U.S. counterterrorism efforts have been centered in the south, where al-Qaeda’s presence has grown and secessionist groups still launch attacks.
But the United States believes the north may be the latest place where another adversary is seeking to influence events.
“We see Iranian efforts to increase their activities and take advantage of the political upheaval and build up their own presence,” said Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, in a recent interview.
The Yemeni military has fought several wars in the north in recent years against a rebellion named for its founding commander, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, who was killed by Yemen forces in 2004.
The movement’s grievances include the corruption and cronyism of the 33-year dictatorship of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who recently agreed to leave office. But his family and longtime regime members remain in power in the capital of Sanaa.
The political unrest has created opportunities for Yemen’s rebellions to gain power. They have been met largely by violence from a military controlled by Saleh’s eldest son and other relatives.
In the north, hundreds of thousands are being made homeless. The United Nations said last week that the number of those displaced during the past three months of fighting in Hajjah province is 52,000, adding to the more than 300,000 people from the neighboring province of Sa’ada already left homeless by wars over the past eight years.
Some believe the violence may be hurting chances for a negotiated settlement that meets grievances and ends extremist influence from outside.
“Without adequately addressing the grievances of the Houthis and the Southern movement, Yemen won’t be able to function as a state that controls all of the territory within its borders,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University. “There is no military solution to either the Houthi conflict or the brewing one in the south. Both are political problems that require political solutions.”
Yemen’s northern conflict has remained largely hidden from the outside world. Saleh restricted humanitarian access and journalists were banned from the war zone.
In 2009, Saudi Arabia became involved in the conflict as clashes spread across their border. The Saudi air force joined in airstrikes by Saleh’s air force. Saleh responded to concerns about the conflict by insisting the Houthis were pro-Hezbollah and sponsored by Iran. The Houthi motto is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel.”