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Proxy war feared in Yemen
Iran, Saudi Arabia

Peter Goodspeed, National Post


September 16, 2009

Fierce battles between government troops and Shiite rebels in the northern mountains of Yemen are fuelling fears of regional instability and a possible proxy war between Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunniled Saudi Arabia.

A month-old government offensive -- Operation Scorched Earth -- has displaced nearly 50,000 people and created a humanitarian crisis as troops use artillery and fighter aircraft to attack the insurgents near the border with Saudi Arabia.

The latest escalation in a five-year-old civil war has targeted Zaidi Shiite rebels in the predominantly mountainous Saadah province.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's President, accuses the Zaidis, who form a majority in the north of the predominantly Sunni country, of trying to spread Shiite fundamentalism and seeking to reinstate clerical rule. The rebels, followers of Sayyid Abd al-Houthi, claim they are protesting against discrimination and poverty. They also object to the Yemen government's close ties to Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Mr. Saleh accuses Iran and its Iraqi-Shiite ally, Muqtada al-Sadr, and his Mahdi Army of backing the Houthis, while the rebels claim Saudi warplanes have participated in recent air raids on their hideouts.

For weeks now, fighting has raged along the mountains that overlook the main highway linking Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as the Yemeni military focuses on trying to destroy rebel arsenals, supply convoys and fortifications.

Repeated truces have failed and international aid agencies say they fear for 165,000 people who have been displaced by the fighting since 2004.

Yesterday the International Red Cross called for the establishment of a humanitarian aid corridor to rush relief supplies to trapped civilians.

Renewed fighting has only served to push the Arab world's poorest country one step closer toward becoming a failed state, with serious implications for the Middle East.

"Yemen is beset by a host of challenges that endanger both its domestic stability and regional security. The country faces a very bleak future," says Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Among Yemen's problems: violent extremism, international terrorism, religious and tribal conflict, separatism, piracy and international smuggling from the Horn of Africa.

Awash in guns and drugs -- there are about six million weapons for only 11 million adults -- the country has become a transit point for smuggling from East Africa to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

The ancestral home of Osama bin Laden is also a magnet for al-Qaeda terrorists. Many Yemenis fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and returned home sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalists.

Counter-terrorism measures in Saudi Arabia and Iraq have also encouraged Islamist terrorists to flee to Yemen.

Now there are signs increasingly successful counter-terrorism efforts in Pakistan may be adding to its appeal as a terrorist refuge.

Two weeks ago, Peter Van Loan, the Public Safety Minister, said Canadian security officials have noted an increased flow of terror suspects to Yemen.

Months earlier, Dennis Blair, the U. S. director of national intelligence, told a congressional hearing in Washington Yemen is "re-emerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base for al-Qaeda to plan internal and external attacks, train terrorists and facilitate the movement of operatives."

The increased lawlessness worries Saudi Arabia, which fears Yemen could provide al-Qaeda with a chance to regroup, organize and train to launch cross-border attacks.

In January, the group's Saudi and Yemeni affiliates merged to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Republic of Yemen was created in 1990 when traditionalist North Yemen and Marxist South Yemen merged after years of border wars. But in 1994 southern separatists staged an unsuccessful civil war and ever since have backed a simmering uprising against the government.

"If the central government's authority and legitimacy continue to deteriorate, Yemen may slowly devolve into semiautonomous regions and cities," Mr. Boucek says. "This trajectory has occurred in other states, such as Somalia and Afghanistan, with disastrous consequences."

In an effort to forestall Yemen's collapse, the United States has equipped and trained local security forces, while Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging proxy ideological battles by backing different elements in Yemen.

"Yemen's window of opportunity to shape its own future is narrowing," warns Ginny Hill, a Middle East analyst with the London-based Chatham House think tank. "Future instability in Yemen could expand a lawless zone stretching from northern Kenya through Somalia and the Gulf of Aden to Saudi Arabia. Piracy, organized crime and violent jihad would escalate, with implications for the security of shipping routes, the transit of oil through the Suez Canal and the internal security of Yemen's neighbours."

- pgoodspeed@nationalpost.com

:: Article nr. 58012 sent on 16-sep-2009 21:51 ECT


Link: www.nationalpost.com/news/world/story.html?id=1998217

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