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YEMEN: Raging insurgency exacerbates tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran

November 13, 2009 |  8:22 am

Yemen-houthis-reuters

After years of teetering on the edge of stability, Yemen appears to be losing control of a minority rebellion on its northern border, raising concerns that the fighting could ignite regional tensions and possibly become a battleground for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In Yemen, extreme poverty, water shortages and a history of civil strife have helped foster extremism and weaken the central government, which increasingly relies on its oil-rich neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, for aid and military support. Many members of Yemen's Zaidi sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose followers make up about a third of the country (including the president) and a majority in the north, claim that Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative interpretation of Wahhabi Islam has influenced the government to marginalize Shiites.

In August, the Yemeni government launched Operation Scorched Earth against Zaidi Shiite rebels in the north, known as Houthis. Although the government has denied the crackdown is religiously motivated, the struggle has broken down along sectarian lines, with the Houthis accusing Saudi Arabia of providing military support to the government and the government accusing Iran of supporting the rebels.

Riyadh and Tehran have denied charges of meddling, but Saudi Arabia was drawn into the fighting directly when Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi patrol in the border area last week. Since then, Saudi troops have been fighting to regain control of the area and establish a buffer zone several miles inside Yemeni territory.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have played down the sectarian nature of the conflict, but the fighting has exacerbated existing tensions between them over Iran's growing regional influence and nuclear ambitions. Most experts say that Iran, along with Hezbollah in Lebanon, serve more as an inspiration for the Houthi rebels than a conduit for arms or funds. 

But that has not stopped the rhetoric from heating up.

Earlier this week, columnist Hamed Majed penned an article for the London-based Saudi newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsaat in which he warned that "there is no smoke on the mountain without Iranian fire." Moreover, he said, these "toxic fumes" contaminate the air from Yemen to Iraq to southern Lebanon, referring to militant Shiite groups Iran sponsors in those countries. 

The Iranian newspaper Mardom-Salari responded on Wednesday with an article titled "Huthiran: Saudi Arabia's new plot against Iran," which slammed Riyadh's military involvement and accused the Saudis of attempting to cover their embarrassing performance against a ragtag group of fighters by implicating Iran.

The same day, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki said his government would cooperate with Yemen to establish peace, but he issued a veiled warning to Saudi Arabia, saying: "Those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Houthi rebels are seen in the border area between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in this video grab from recent footage released by the rebels. Credit: Reuters.

Video: An Al Jazeera report on fighting between Houthis and Saudi troops.

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