Yemen’s Conflict Escalates as Houthi Leader Mobilizes for War

Yemen’s conflict intensified over the weekend as the country’s Shiite Houthi leader called for volunteers and money for a widening offensive against forces loyal to the presidency.

The group’s Revolutionary Committee asked the finance ministry on Sunday to raise funds for a military campaign in the south, the Saba news agency reported. The same day, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi accused the internationally recognized president, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, of collaborating with Sunni militants from al-Qaeda and Islamic State, and being a “puppet” for foreign forces.

The escalation of violence is raising concerns that the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country may disintegrate into a full-blown civil war, and draw in neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and Hadi’s main backer. The erosion of government authority has already allowed al-Qaeda to take root in Yemen and use it as a base for attacks.

The United Nation’s envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, told the Security Council in a video link on Sunday recent events have pushed Yemen “to the edge of civil war,” and urged a return to “peaceful dialogue.” Benomar had been brokering talks between the parties that collapsed amid the latest violence.

Anti-Houthi Protests

Protests erupted Monday in Taiz a day after soldiers loyal to the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized the airport and set up checkpoints in the city, Mohammed Marish, an activist, said by phone. Thousands of people marched and chanted anti-Houthi slogans, he said.

The Houthi commander urged on Sunday Yemen’s tribes to send fighters and money to support the rebels and the security forces under their control. A day earlier, the Houthis declared a state of general mobilization, ordering the army to prepare for war against forces loyal to Hadi, who has rallied supporters in the southern port of Aden after fleeing the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, last month.

Fighting has spread in the south, with airstrikes against Hadi’s palace in Aden in recent days, while about 140 people were killed on Friday in suicide bomb attacks at two mosques in Sana’a. The Houthis have vowed to avenge the attack. Islamic State said it was responsible, though the group hasn’t been among the most prominent actors in Yemen.

Yemen’s army has divided, with some units on each side of the conflict. The Houthis are allied with supporters of Saleh, who was replaced by Hadi under a Saudi-brokered accord in 2011. Yemen only reunified in 1990 after decades of division.

Protracted Conflict

“If it does turn into a civil war, then we’re in for a long, protracted conflict,” Sultan Barakat, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, said by phone.

The Saudis and their Gulf allies accuse Iran, the region’s leading Shiite power, of being behind the rise of the Houthis, who advanced from their base in north Yemen to take control of Sana’a last year.

The Security Council reiterated its support for Benomar’s efforts, and demanded that “all parties in Yemen cease all armed hostilities against the people and the legitimate authorities.” The council said it’s ready to take further measures, without identifying them. The U.K. ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said broadening targeted sanctions is one option.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said in an e-mailed statement that the Houthis, working in “close collaboration” with ex-president Saleh, have “consistently undermined Yemen’s transition.” The U.S. evacuated all remaining personnel in the country, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said in an e-mailed statement.

Rathke, the State Department official, said the U.S. will continue to support a political transition and will actively monitor and take action to disrupt threats emanating from Yemen. About 100 U.S. Special Forces soldiers were leaving Al Anad airbase in Yemen, CNN reported Saturday. The U.S. considers Hadi’s government an ally against al-Qaeda.

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