September 29, 2009:
In Yemen, troops fighting Shia rebels near the Saudi border, have 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 tribal warriors have been unable to stop the army, and the families of these warriors are starting to go hungry. So the tribal leaders are trying to negotiate a peace deal. The government isn't very enthusiastic about the offer. That's because only two years ago, the government made peace with the northern Shia tribes, and the tribes quickly 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.
The government launched an offensive against the Shia rebels last month. Over a thousand have died in this battle, most of them Shia fighters. In the last five years, several thousand have died in this on-and-off war. The tribes are believed to be receiving cash from Iran, which is used to sustain families forced to flee their villages to avoid the fighting. But with the Yemeni army blockade of the roads into the north, the tribes can only smuggle in small quantities of anything.
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. 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. This rule was shut down by the central government in 1962. The Shia of Yemen are not mainstream Shia, but a sect called the Zaydis. There are about a million of them in Yemen, and they dominate the northern part of the country. Overall, about fifteen percent of the 19 million people in Yemen, are Shia. The rest are mainstream Sunni.
In nearby Saudi Arabia, Shia are considered heretics. 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.