Q&A: Yemen at dangerous crossroads as Shiites seize power

AP News
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Posted: Feb 07, 2015 2:42 PM
Q&A: Yemen at dangerous crossroads as Shiites seize power

Yemen's Shiite rebels have dissolved parliament and declared a transitional government in the majority Sunni nation. The move raises doubts over whether the U.S.-led counter-terrorism campaign against Yemen's branch of the al-Qaida terror network can continue without local support.

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Q: WHO ARE THE HOUTHIS?

A: They are a modern Shiite tribal movement rooted in northern Yemen along the nation's border with Saudi Arabia. Their name honors their first military commander, Hussein al-Houthi, who launched an anti-government rebellion following the U.S. invasion of Iraq with the aim of toppling Yemen's pro-Western government. He was killed by Yemen's army in 2004. Houthis again took part in the 2011 Arab Spring rebellion against the government of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but rejected a compromise plan that passed power to Saleh's successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. They since have consolidated their military hold over Yemen's northern provinces and, in September 2014, moved south to seize control of the capital, Sanaa, and other major cities.

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Q: HOW DO THE HOUTHIS INTEND TO GOVERN THEIR FEUD-PRONE LAND?

A: Without support from the two-thirds of the population that is Sunni Muslim, it will be difficult and dangerous, running the risk of provoking civil war.

This is why, when Houthi fighters surrounded Hadi's home and presidential palace in January, they stopped short of demanding his ouster and instead hoped to force the moderate Sunni to concede greater rights to their own Shiite sect. Hadi refused and resigned along with his entire Cabinet.

On Friday, the Houthis ended their waiting game with the ousted government's leaders and empowered their Revolutionary Committee, led by a cousin of Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, to form a transitional government and fill a new 551-member parliament to replace the dissolved one.

Questions remain whether the Houthis will be able to attract significant participation from other factions, particularly Sunnis from the previous government, to give their power grab an air of legitimacy. Hadi remains under house arrest and incommunicado, but the Houthis claimed Saturday to have recruited two of his ministers into the evolving new government. The Houthis have not said when they might sanction elections, if ever.

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Q: WHO ARE THE WINNERS FROM THE HOUTHIS' POWER GRAB?

A: Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the movement's 33-year-old leader, has reached a new zenith of power. It remains to be seen which Middle East players ally themselves behind him. Iran, the Middle East's predominant Shiite power, and the militant Shiites of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon appear the most likely candidates. The Houthis insist they have no formal agreements with either.

The Houthis' grass-roots supporters send a different signal. At demonstrations and in battle they often shout a slogan that is shared with Shiite hard-liners in both Iran and Iraq as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah: "Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory to Islam."

Yemen's ousted government viewed Iran as a longstanding ally of the Houthis; its military has intercepted Iranian arms shipments allegedly bound for the Houthis.

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Q: DOES A HOUTHI GOVERNMENT HARM THE U.S. FIGHT AGAINST AL-QAIDA?

A: Al-Qaida's Yemen branch, led by top Osama bin Laden's lieutenant Nasser al-Wahishi, has posed the greatest danger to the West in recent years. It has launched several failed attacks on U.S. soil. Last month the group claimed responsibility for attacking the headquarters of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The Houthis are not natural allies. Their members belong to the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, while al-Qaida's Yemeni affiliate is staunchly Sunni. The two factions have fought bloody turf wars in central Yemen in recent months.

But the Houthis also are hostile to U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, including its campaign of striking suspected al-Qaida sites in Yemen using drone aircraft. The Houthis' rise to power has badly eroded the operational effectiveness of the Yemeni military, which has received heavy U.S. aid in hopes it could be built into an effective bulwark against al-Qaida in the Gulf. Continued Yemeni support for U.S. airstrikes is now in jeopardy.