Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
All over the city of Saada, the ruins of centuries-old buildings blown apart by artillery stand as reminders of the conflict between Houthis and the government.
By KAREEM FAHIM
December 16, 2011
SAADA, Yemen — In the streets of this city’s medieval quarter, the toll of Yemen’s hidden wars became clear.
Boys and men maimed by fighting, missing hands, eyes or legs, arrived by bus to greet a visiting dignitary. All around them, mud buildings that stood for centuries had been blown apart by artillery fire, crumbling to the earth. Shrapnel pierced the white walls of a mosque, exposing the red brick underneath. In the mosque’s garden, headstones marked the graves of two of the war dead, representing untold numbers of other victims: locals say thousands were killed during the six separate wars in recent years that swept through Yemen’s northern provinces. There is no official tally.
Beginning in 2004, in fighting that was largely invisible to the outside world, President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent his armies to vanquish a group of rebels known as the Houthis, after the clan of their leader. The government bombed villages and shelled cities as it accused the Houthis of kidnappings and assassinations. Hundreds of thousands of civilians took shelter in camps.
It was just one of many conflicts that have destabilized Yemen. Separatists continue to press their claims on the south, and a resurgent offshoot of Al Qaeda has seized territory from a government distracted by a popular uprising and a deal for Mr. Saleh to leave power.
The regional overtones of the northern wars raised the stakes. The government, offering scant proof, accused Iran of interfering as Saudi Arabia, coaxed into the fight, attacked the Houthis with overwhelming force. Mr. Saleh diverted resources from the pursuit of Al Qaeda, sending counterterrorism forces financed by the United States to fight the rebels.
Now in Saada city, the seat of Houthi power, the guns have gone quiet. The calm and recent statements by the Houthis have raised tentative hopes that the rebels may be trying to come in from the cold.
Reporters accompanying a United Nations diplomat on a rare visit to the area last week saw neighborhoods badly damaged in the last round of fighting — hundreds of homes in the city were destroyed — and a threadbare camp for people displaced by the wars. But there were also plans to rebuild, as well as bustling shops and gas stations without the lines that have formed in other Yemeni cities during the current political crisis.
The diplomat, Jamal Benomar, who is the United Nations envoy to Yemen, said the Houthi leader expressed a willingness to participate in a new political process that started last month. The Houthis were not part of an internationally backed agreement to remove Mr. Saleh from power, but the statements by the leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, raised the prospect of an end to their armed struggle. “They need to do politics,” Mr. Benomar said after a meeting with Mr. Houthi. “The sooner, the better.”
The 11-month Yemeni uprising may have given the movement an opening. The Houthis supported the popular uprising and forged new alliances in protest squares around the country. At the same time, they seized on the political crisis to expand the territory under their control, as their rivals allied with the country’s Islamist opposition tried to do the same.
Analysts say that the Houthis are now trying to build on a base of support they have cultivated over years, finding allies among people angered by the government’s indiscriminate attacks during the wars, or impressed with their organizational skills.
Majid el-Fahed, a senior project manager with the Finnish conflict resolution organization Crisis Management Initiative, who travels to Saada often, said that despite the relative youth and inexperience of the movement’s leaders, they had been smart administrators, dividing fuel rations so that a quarter was kept for electric generators and some of the rest was distributed to farmers.
“I think they want to be part of Yemeni politics so they can be socially effective,” he said.
The antigovernment protests that swept through Yemen brought thousands to the streets in Saada for weekly marches from a gate in the old city to a security barracks. In March, as Houthi fighters advanced on the city, the old governor fled.
Now the city is administered by an unlikely coalition that includes government troops and defected soldiers, the Houthis and the new governor, a prominent arms dealer who receives a salary from the state. Many people here said that the Houthis were the most powerful members of that coalition and that there was still plenty of confusion — and concern — about their goals.
At the same time, the troubles in the north are far from over. Scores of people have been killed in recent weeks during fierce clashes in Damaj, a town on Saada’s outskirts, between Houthi fighters and ultraconservative Islamists called Salafis, one of the many layers of a conflict that has festered over time and could derail any political progress. The Houthis are Zaydi Muslims, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. On one level, the fight is between hard-line religious groups with competing agendas. But analysts say it may also represent a proxy war stoked by unseen hands. At various times, the Salafis have been supported by the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia or Yemen’s Islamist opposition, they said.
Houthis in Saada complain that many of the Salafis are foreigners. At a hospital in Saada city there were several wounded Salafis, some of whom said they were afraid to leave for fear of being attacked by the Houthis. A hospital administrator said it was a Saudi-financed hospital, with a mission to provide care and stay out of politics.
In the wards, patients insisted on being heard. They included two Algerians and a student from the United Arab Emirates, who said he had just come to study.
“Then, the fighting started,” he said.
Some viewed the fighting as a trap for the Houthis, orchestrated to plunge them into a new conflict and keep them out of politics. In a statement released after Mr. Benomar’s visit, Mr. Houthi was looking ahead, saying that “in the context of a fair system,” the movement would consider forming a political party. “This is a step forward,” Mr. Benomar said, after his plane had lifted off from an airstrip in Saada. “It’s a step forward in a long road.”