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War in Yemen Means Business

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Issue: 65 Section: International News Yemen Topics: war

November 9, 2009

War in Yemen Means Business

While 30,000 IDPs remain inaccessible to relief, US Powered scores nuclear reactor

by Isaac Oommen

Once one of the most sophisticated centres of learning in Arabia, Yemen has recently become one of the poorest and most troubled countries in the Middle East. [cc 2.0] Photo: Ahron de Leeuw

VANCOUVER—Yemen has been rocked by a series of violent clashes between government and rebel forces from the northern tribes since August, and plans to build a new nuclear reactor has sparked fears of increased tensions.

When the internal conflict in Yemen intensified in August from periodic clashes to full-scale military engagement, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was adamant that his forces would crush the rebel tribes.

"We are determined to destroy this sedition," he said in an address to military school graduates. "We will nip this cancer wherever it exists, in [the province of] Sa'ada or elsewhere."

The northern al-Houthi rebels immediately accused the armed forces of using weapons supplied by the US. A series of videos released by the Houthis displayed weapons they had confiscated from the army during skirmishes over the last year.

Yemen's government has since denounced the northern rebels for wanting to set up an independent Shia state in the country that mimics the pre-1962 theocracy.

In press releases, the government has also accused Iran of backing the Houthis with weapons and training.

On his website, the rebels' leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has denied both accusations. He countered that his people have been fighting for their rights against a government that has become too cozy with Saudi Arabia, whose fundamentalist Wahhabi Sunni rulers see the 10 million Zaydi Yemeni Shi'ites as heretics. He also stressed the difference between Zaydi and Iranian Shi'ism.

Saudi Arabia has a noted interest in the conflict, and has been accused by Houthis of disallowing internally displaced people (IDPs) from entering its borders. Saudi interests in Yemen are like those of the US—primarily related to the threat of terrorism.

US and Pakistani officials are looking at the Arabian peninsula as the new breeding ground for terrorist activities, alleging a movement out of Afghanistan towards countries such as Somalia and Yemen.

Early in the year, deputy chief of Al Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri merged the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni wings of the group. This made enough waves for US President Barack Obama to send Yemen's President a letter in September asking for more cooperation in fighting Al Qaeda in the region.

During US Senator John McCain's August visit to Yemen, he mentioned that the US wholly supports efforts to enhance Yemen's security.

Yemen also gained attention in Canada as an alleged training ground for Canadian Islamic extremists.

"There's a great, and I think growing, fear among policy makers in Washington, in London, in Canada and in Europe about what instability in Yemen will mean for the future of a group like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Canadian Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan told the National Post on September 4.

Canadian firms were among those meeting with the Yemeni government in September over talks to build a nuclear reactor there. The deal eventually went to US-based Powered Corporation. Greenpeace was one of the first groups to note that the plant would likely increase instability in Middle East.

Energy shortfalls in Yemen are becoming worse, with rolling blackouts and water shortages affecting multiple provinces, particularly in the south of the country. Protests in that area are becoming increasingly violent, as more people become angry about marginalization by the federal government.

Reports regarding the war in the north are few and sporadic. By the end of September the Yemeni government was alleging that Operation Scorched Earth had killed hundreds of Houthi fighters and pushed the remainder out of their stronghold in Sa'ada.

In an October 14 address commemorating the Yemeni uprising against the British in 1963, President Saleh said that he expected to completely crush the rebels over the next few days.

The rebels have been reporting the opposite, claiming to have captured further cities and killed several government troops in Sa'ada province in September. Houthi sources said the rebels had even seized an army camp in early October.

Facts are hard to obtain since the Yemeni government has shut out news agencies from the area, forcing the latter to rely on government and rebel press releases. Both parties' claims have largely been unsubstantiated.

President Saleh mentioned in an Eid ul-Fitr address that Houthi rebels were using human shields and killing civilians. Resistance fighters countered that the army closed down a hospital because of its alleged links to Iran, and attacked a refugee camp.

Any potential for talks have been rebuffed by the government; further, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi stated on September 15 that Yemen would reject all offers of external mediation.

One fact that has not been diluted is the humanitarian impact of the fighting. A combination of aerial bombardment by the government and head-to-head fighting have forced thousands to flee their homes.

Since August, 50,000 people have been uprooted to refugee camps or are stranded in the fighting, according to the Economist. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees notes that around 30,000 of these IDPs are inaccessible to relief workers. A total of about 150,000 people have been displaced since the first round of fighting between the government and rebels in 2004.

Coupled with the unrest in the south, the war in the north is quickly earning Yemen its spot as possibly the most increasingly troubled and poorest region in the Middle East.

Isaac K Oommen is a freelance journalist and commmunications coordinator from Dubai, now residing in Vancouver. Born a nomad, Isaac traveled extensively through the Middle East, south-east Asia and Pacific Asia before settling in Vancouver.

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