SANAA, Yemen – From his exile in Saudi Arabia, Yemen's president on Wednesday ordered that militias battling Shiite rebels in Yemen be merged with his national army units, a move that comes in an apparent attempt to unify forces fighting on the ground.
It was not immediately clear how the order would translate on the front-lines in Yemen, where fierce, months-long fighting has pitted Iran-backed Shiite rebels known as Houthis and troops loyal to the country's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, against southern separatists, local and tribal militias, Sunni Islamic militants and loyalists of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Also, a Saudi-led coalition has been waging an air campaign since March against the Houthis, who control the capital, Sanaa, parts of northern Yemen and who are pushing to expand their power grab to the south of this impoverished Arabian Peninsula country.
According to Hadi's adviser, Maj. Gen. Jafaar Mohammed Saad, authorities are "working on implementing the decision in the fastest time possible" to integrate the militias, known as "Popular Resistance" units — a vague term used for a wide specter of groups opposed to the Houthis.
However, security and military officials said they fear the order could provide a path for extremists such as al-Qaida to infiltrate military ranks. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to journalists.
Some also questioned Hadi's motives for the order.
"The decision is an attempt by Hadi to win the favor of the Yemeni street, especially in the south," said Yemen-based political analyst Ahmed Dobhi.
Yemen's national army is fractured. Many powerful military units loyal to the former president, Saleh, are fighting alongside the Houthis.
In the southern port city of Aden, militia members are also being recruited by local police stations that are short of manpower, security officials said, also speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations.
Anti-Houthi fighters in Aden said last week that they seized full control of the city, after pushing the rebels from their last holdout.
Also Wednesday, a car bomb exploded in Sanaa, next to a mosque belonging to the minority al-Bohra community, a Shiite sect, killing three people and wounding six, Yemen's rebel-held Interior Ministry said in a statement. The explosion could be heard across the capital.
A local affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the car bomb, according to a statement shared on Twitter accounts of supporters of the IS group.
The Islamic State affiliate in Yemen has claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings in Sanaa targeting Shiites. American officials initially expressed skepticism that the affiliate existed, as Yemen is also home to the world's most dangerous al-Qaida offshoot.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said humanitarian access in Yemen remains "extremely and unconscionably limited," and called again for an unconditional pause in the fighting.
Ban told reporters Wednesday that he was concerned about the fighting and its "potentially destabilizing effects on the region," and noted that the conflict has killed thousands of civilians and destroyed critical infrastructure.
The U.N. chief expressed hope that the "politically created momentum" of the Security Council's five permanent members uniting behind the Iran nuclear deal would be used to address the conflict in Yemen as well. He said the U.N. expects Iran to play a "very important and constructive role" on such regional crises.
Ban also said the U.N. envoy for Yemen remains in the region for consultations with parties involved.
Associated Press writer Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this report.