* Preacher says fundamentalist Sunni influence hurts Yemen
* Advocates Houthi rights through national dialogue
* Says govt has not rebuilt infrastructure in rebel towns
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
SANAA- Mar 8, 2011- Yemen's northern Shi'ite rebels, inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, have stopped fighting the government and are joining to non-violent protests instead, a theologian with close ties to the rebels said on Tuesday.
The rebels, known as Houthis after their leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi, have fought the government on and off since 2004 in a conflict that even drew in neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia when Houthis briefly seized Saudi territory last year.
Abdulkareem Ahmed Jadban, who has mediated between the government and the rebels, told Reuters the Houthis have put down their weapons and joined nationwide peaceful protests that have swept Yemen demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32 year rule.
"The examples of Tunisia and Egypt have been powerful. The Houthis have not fired a single bullet in the last several weeks. The have taken to the streets in Saada in their thousands like the rest of Yemen," Jadban said. But he cautioned that the non-violence could also be short-lived.
Yemen agreed a truce in 2009 to halt its intermittent war with the Houthis. But sporadic violence has continued, Jadban said, because Saleh is supporting a tribal figure in the Houthi stronghold of Saada.
"They still reserve the right of self-defence. The attack on them last week was unjustified. Saleh is trying to divert attention from the street rage he is facing throughout Yemen," he added, referring to an attack by the military on protestors that killed two in Saada, the Houthis' northern stronghold.
At least 27 people have been killed in Yemen since protests erupted last month. Saleh, a key U.S. ally against al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, is refusing street demands to leave and has hinted that Yemen would fall apart without him.
The Houthis, Jadban said, want effective representation in a national dialogue to take place if the popular movement manages to remove Saleh from office.
Jadban was until recently a member of Saleh's ruling party, the General People's Congress Party until he resigned last week along with 11 other parliamentarians to protest Saleh's refusal to meet street demands to step down.
"Being in parliament was the only way to help the people of Saada because the ruling party controlled everything. No longer," said Jadban, who has written books on the sect of Shi'ite Islam known as Zaidism, to which Houthis belong.
Jadban believes the Houthis might gain more traction if Houthis relinquished their belief in an Imamate, where the ruler must be a descendent of Islam's prophet Mohammed. A Zaidi imamate ruled much of modern Yemen for more than 1,000 years until it was overthrown in 1962.
The Houthis are also deeply resentful of Saudi Arabia's promotion of its austere Salafi school and fear that this fundamental version of Sunni Islam threatens their identity.
Saleh, who is backed by the United States, is of the same minority Zaidi sect as the Houthis, but also receives backing from Saudi Arabia in the conflict.
A Qatari-brokered peace agreement last summer stipulated that the government should help with the reconstruction of Saada but Jadban said little effort was made to improve the lot of the province, which is more impoverished than the rest of Yemen.
"There is no electricity. The whole region is sinking in darkness," he said.