October 12, 2009: For three months now, Yemeni troops have been fighting Shia rebels near the Saudi border. In the last week or so, over a hundred have died there, most of them rebels. Several dozen rebels have been arrested. The army has advanced deep into the territory of the tribes leading the resistance. Roads have been blocked for weeks, keeping food and other supplies from getting to over 100,000 Shia. Over 50,000 have fled their homes. The Shia rebels have nowhere to turn, as Saudi Arabia considers Shias heretics. It's believed that Iran is supporting the rebels, mainly with cash. Since the Shia tribes are inland, away from the coast, it's difficult for Iran to deliver anything else. With cash, the rebels can bribe local officials, buy supplies for themselves and their families, and replenish their ammo and weapons from gunrunners. Yemeni troops recently captured three arms dealers, who were not in the area to dispense charity. The soldiers have made it difficult for anything to get through to the rebels.
However, supplies can get through. There are about nine million Shia in Yemen (40 percent of the population) and most belong, like the rebels, to the Zaidi sect. Only a few hundred thousand Zaidi are up in arms against the government, and not all of them are actively resisting the advancing troops. There are another million Zaidis across the border in Saudi Arabia, where the Sunni majority makes any uprising, or assistance to their Yemeni brethren, highly unlikely. The rebels appear ready to go down fighting, and have mountain fortresses that will be difficult to take. This all might go on for a while.
The tribal warriors have been unable to stop the army, and the families of these warriors are starting to go hungry. Tribal leaders have been trying to negotiate a peace deal, but the government has not been very enthusiastic about that. Two years ago, the government made peace with the northern Shia tribes, and the tribes soon ignored their promises to behave. The tribal leaders know this, and are demanding that international observers come in to supervise any ceasefire. The government knows this is a scam, because the tribal leaders believe they could con the foreign observers to let the tribesmen get away with whatever criminal activities, or even attacks on government troops, that they had a mind to. Along those lines, the tribal leaders have alerted many prominent humanitarian relief NGOs and asked them to apply pressure on the Yemeni government, to let up on its blockade, so food and medical supplies can get through to the starving women and children (and, of course, tribal warriors, especially those hundreds who have been wounded.) The government is playing hardball, and demanding surrender, before peace talks begin. If the tribal rebels cannot get pressure from foreigners to work, surrender will be the only option.
Over a thousand have died in this campaign so far, most of them Shia fighters. In the last five years, several thousand have died in this on-and-off war. While Yemen is supposed to be the new headquarters of "Al Qaeda in Arabia" (Saudi Arabia no longer being safe for the terrorists), these Islamic terrorists are keeping their heads down, as Yemen drifts towards civil war. Other groups in the south want to break away and form their own "Yemen." But so far, the government sees the Shia rebels in the north as the bigger threat. The dissident politicians in the south are waiting to see how the war with the Shia tribes plays out. And al Qaeda seems to be waiting as well. There has been some gunfire from southern separatist groups, but nothing major.
The Shia Islamic militants of northern Yemen want to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This rule was shut down, after surviving more than a thousand years, by the central government in 1962. The bin Laden family are Sunnis from Yemen, and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda has been brutal in its persecution of Shias. Ironically, the Sunni dominated government of Yemen is quite pro-American, while the Shia, particularly the several hundred thousand followers of Shia radical al Houthi, are very anti-American. While al Qaeda are present in Yemen, rebellious Shia like the al Houthi crowd, are considered a much bigger domestic problem.
The current battles with the Shia tribesmen have been more intense in the last five years. Until last year, things had been quiet for two years. In 2005, nearly a thousand troops and tribesmen died, while in 2004 some 400 died. Since then, 150,000 people have become refugees. There have been several truces, but the al Houthi supporters keep breaking them. The rebels keep demanding more concessions from the government (which is a coalition of Shia and Sunni groups). What is ironic about all this is that the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a Zaidi. But the rebels consider Saleh a traitor for dealing with the Sunni majority.
There are still many Yemenis who have a grudge against the government. Most of this can be traced back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and the north and south are pulling apart again.