CAIRO – Fierce fighting broke out in Yemen on Monday between the U.S.-backed government and Shiite rebels known as Houthis who seized the capital in September. The power struggle threatens to undermine efforts to battle al-Qaida's potent Yemeni franchise, which claimed this month's attack on a French magazine.
The clashes, which focused on the presidential palace in Sanaa and a military area south of it, mark the biggest challenge yet to the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, with one official calling Monday's move by the Houthis "a step toward a coup."
Q: What does this mean for al-Qaida in Yemen? Where does it leave the U.S.?
A: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington considers to be the group's most dangerous branch, has been thriving from the fallout of the Houthis' expansionist aspirations in central Yemen, where Sunni tribesmen predominate. The turmoil has taken a sharply sectarian tone, pitting Sunnis against Shiites, to the benefit of Sunni al-Qaida. The militant group claims to be present in 16 out of Yemen's 21 provinces.
With the gradual ascendance of Houthis to power and the waning of Hadi's clout, the U.S. risks losing a faithful partner and ally in its yearslong campaign against AQAP, likely harming that effort.
Q: Who are the Houthis?
A: The Houthi movement started as a small religious group called "The Believing Youth," who sought to revive Zaydism, a Shiite sect to which some 30 percent of Yemenis, mainly in the north, belong. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq stoked anti-American sentiment in the region, Hussein al-Houthi capitalized on popular anger to launch an armed revolt against the U.S.-allied president at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Government troops killed Houthi in 2004, but his followers continued the bloody northern insurgency he started against Saleh, a longtime autocrat, until a 2010 cease-fire. Known now for the name of the movement's founder, the Houthis also enjoyed wide support among disenchanted tribesmen who had suffered from Saleh's military campaigns.
Q: How much territory do they control? What is their ultimate goal?
A: After Saleh's 2012 ouster following Arab Spring protests, the Houthis' power grew. Battling their way from their northern heartland in Saada toward the south, they struck blows against the government as well as another old enemy, the Hashid tribal federation. That group, also Zaydis, was allied to the Islamist Islah party — the Muslim Brotherhood's branch in Yemen — as well as some top military generals. In September 2014, the Houthis seized the capital after besieging it for weeks under the pretext that they wanted a new government and the reinstatement of fuel subsidies. Since then, the Houthis have overrun at least eight provinces including Hodeida, which has the country's second largest port. For weeks, its fighters have been deployed to the eastern province of Marib, which is rich in oil and natural gas. However, the presence of strong local tribes in Marib will likely prevent a full takeover.
Q: Are the Houthis aligned with Iran?
A: Critics say the movement, now led by 33-year-old Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, is heavily backed by Iran. At demonstrations and in battle they often scream out a variation of a popular Iranian slogan also chanted by Shiite militants in Iraq and supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah: "Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory to Islam." Yemeni authorities have seized ships carrying Iranian weapons allegedly destined for the Houthis in recent years. The Houthis deny that they are linked to Iran.
Q: Is this a sectarian conflict?
A: The Houthis' war in northern Yemen was not sectarian in nature, but a score-settling between old foes. Today's struggle, which pits the Houthis and their erstwhile bugbear Saleh against the Islah party, the Al-Ahmar tribe, and military leaders, is also more about political power than anything else.
Q: Will Yemen split?
A: Most Yemenis want a federal system that would grant more power to local authorities. Both the Houthis and many in the once-independent south would like to reconstitute some version of a north-south divide, while Hadi and his supporters want a six-region scheme, as put forth in the draft constitution. Southerners, who had an independent communist state until reunification in 1990 — say six-region federalism would leave the north with more power — four provinces versus only two in the south. The Houthis reject the six-region plan over concerns it would diminish their power in areas they have already seized. There is an international dimension as well. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia back Hadi, and the Saudis view the Houthis as both an Iranian proxy and a terrorist organization that threatens regional stability. Riyadh fears the group seeks to create a mini-state in northern Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia.
Associated Press writer Brian Rohan contributed to this report from Cairo.